Efficiency vs. efficacy: should the business process of schools be centralised?

Andrea Howard, SBM at a primary school in Cornwall, explores when – and why – school business management should be centralised

Whilst every academy trust seems to be structured in its own unique way, the trend is towards centralisation in nearly all areas. Is this the right way forward, or could it cause more problems in the long-run?
We know all schools are different. Small schools, which cannot afford the ‘luxury’ of a business manager, would very much benefit from the business function of the school being carried out at a centralised office, leaving the teaching staff to focus on what they got into this profession to do – teaching and learning – the primary reason for the existence of schools. It seems to me, however, that there is a tipping point in centralisation. Secondary schools almost always need to have their own business manager and associated team – the size of the school and the amount of time it takes to keep it functioning demand this – but what about medium-to-large primary schools?
This becomes a question of efficiency vs efficacy. Most medium-to-large primary schools have, and can afford, an SBM in role; these staff provide a service vital to the effective running of these large and complex entities, but how can a multi-academy trust balance the desire for centralisation with the benefits of having a skilled person on the front line who is able to carry out the business function as best suits the school that employs them?
Consistency is king?
This is a bone of contention in many trusts, and for many SBMs in this situation. There are many who fear that, with the increase of MATs, the role of individual SBMs will become obsolete – but it just doesn’t make sense to put a skilled individual out to pasture if the school still benefits from the role that they carry out. The increased efficiency across the MAT may come at the cost of lost management efficacy for medium-to-large sized primary schools.
MATs rightly want to ensure consistency across their schools, and robust policies, training and up-skilling should ensure that this is happening; providing centralised training, and including the school-based SBMs in the creation of these policies will almost certainly guarantee the buy-in from the individual schools. In my experience, MAT central teams often consist of people who come from industry, rather than education, and they have never worked in the whirlwind that can be a school office. This can result in the implementation of policies and procedures without great consideration of the practical realities on the ground, so to speak, which can differ greatly between schools.
Those of us who are school-based must then navigate our way through these policies and procedures. Oftentimes these include the doubling-up of work, particularly when it comes to reporting. A properly functioning centralised business management system needs a mechanism that allows for the consideration of differing practical issues across schools.
Depending on the extent of the centralisation, there can also be long delays in the actioning of urgent issues. For example, I was recently told that every single order placed in an eight-school MAT must be signed off by the trust’s principle business manager; this impairs the day-to-day running of the schools, and Amazon ends up being the saviour of the day. On balance, the centralisation of the financial function does allow for more transparency, but a proper centralised system of business management must be more responsive than in this example.
Balancing act
Compliance and health and safety can be a different matter and, in a large trust, it requires an extensive team to have a complete overview of every school. It makes much more sense, therefore, to have a SBM in place who knows their school and all its quirks, who knows the history of the temperamental plumbing in the KS2 boys’ toilet and who knows a local company that can service the ancient boiler at a reasonable price – avoiding the travel costs incurred by using the trust’s preferred suppliert, who might be located over an hour’s travelling time away. This local knowledge, and experience at the ‘coalface’, can be invaluable, and lead to both the most effective and most efficient action.
So where is the balance? That is the million-dollar question – one that can only be answered if the central team engage with the school-based teams to work together to find a solution that works for everyone. This solution has room for flexibility and adaptation to meet the needs of the different schools within the trust, which may or may not have an SBM in place. Collaboration is key, along with an open-minded, and mutually respectful, understanding of the roles and pressures of each setting.
Listening to all stakeholders, and acknowledging that those of us based in schools are an invaluable resource of knowledge and skills – and partners in providing an efficient and financially stable school – is infinitely preferable to a top-down and tone-deaf approach to the school business function.
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