Ethics in leadership

Hilary Goldsmith, an experienced SBM now working as a consultant, talks to Nell Walker about her particular brand of leadership – and her hopes for the future of the role

Tell me a little about your background.

My first school job was in 2003; prior to that I worked for an examining board for many years and then as a statistician. Eventually, I got a job at a first school in East London, as a data and assessment manager. From there I took on SIMS, a bit of IT and a bit of office admin, and I found out what a bursar or SBM job was and thought I fancied that.

One of the deputy heads there got a headship somewhere and he needed a finance and data person, so I said I was interested in being an SBM. He said, “Come with me,” and so I went and did his finance and data stuff. I did an SBM course, which was modular, at the time, so I did little bits at a time while working at that school.

I became a full SBM at the end of that, in 2008. In 2009 I moved to Saffron Walden in Essex and I was there as an SBM for about six years; they academised and took on another secondary school and two primaries during that time, so I was working across all four of those schools. Then, we decided we wanted to relocate, so we came down to Brighton to go to Varndean School in 2016. Now, I’m a consultant.

What would you say is your greatest professional accomplishment?

At Saffron Walden we built a concert hall. It was through a donation – an incredibly large donation from an individual – which allowed us to build a state-of-the-art concert hall on a state school site, and it was amazing to give the school this world-class facility for everyday, normal kids to be part of. That’s still going strong and it’s done some amazing things for the music department – and for the children, generally, in that area.

Academising was also a big deal, back then – that was major. Getting through that when nobody really knew what they were doing, in about 2011, when we were one of the early converters – making it up as we went along – was significant. The goats at Varndean were also a big thing; thanks to the amount of attention they got for the school – and for the children who were part of that project – that’s very dear to my heart because it had a direct impact on an awful lot of children who had a fantastic time being a part of it. It was life-changing for some of the children who really benefited from a quiet, outdoor activity.

What makes you a good leader?

I’m pretty good at letting people develop their own skills and letting managers develop their own ideas; I’m good at drawing out the best in people, identifying skills that people have and bringing those out of them. It helps further their careers and enables the experts to be experts.

What’s your motivation as an SBM?

It’s always about being able to use your skills and your abilities to support others, whether that’s children – and obviously that’s a big motivating factor, to have a part in changing children’s lives by providing resources, facilities, staff, direction and to enable education to improve children’s lives – or by being able to go into schools and work with other business managers and headteachers to improve the management of their budgeting to then enable them to have better resource management. Education and children benefit as a direct result of that.

Can you think of a time when you ‘rallied the troops’ during a tough time?

The trouble comes during difficult financial times. When schools are going through transformation – whether that be academisation or restructure – there’s always a lot of pressure, a lot of uncertainty, and there’s probably a lot more work, one way or another.

You have to be really clear with people about why whatever’s happening is happening and why the change is necessary, while trying, also, to be fair to the people who are part of that process and to really focus on the outcomes for children. It may be a difficult time to get through but our job is to support members of staff, in particular, and to make sure that, whatever’s going on at a higher level, behind the scenes, isn’t directly impacting our children. If you keep that focus in mind, you can get through most things – you know it’s not always going to be like that, so you focus on getting through the project, getting through the time and getting out the other side as best you can. Not to mention, hopefully, getting something positive out of it!

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The best case scenario is that, by the end, you’ll discover different ways of working, with different people moving into roles, new opportunities and being a sounding board; being that person people can moan at. You also have to accept that it’s not always going to be the nicest place in the world to be! But you all have that same end goal in mind.

It takes a lot of resilience to be an SBM and there are not a lot of people who can support you, sometimes. Quite often there’s confidential stuff, and that’s where the headteacher-SBM relationship is crucial, because you support each other.

What are the important values that you believe a leader should have?

I think you have to have you own personal set of ethics. There are always difficult things that you have to do – it’s public money, so there’s accountability; it’s transparency, as long as there’s no confidentiality involved, it’s about having respect for people and whatever process you might have to go through, understanding that’s an individual person who’s doing their best and the situation is happening to them.

Keep people and kindness at the centre of whatever your ethics are, or whatever the process is, making sure you don’t lose sight of the people involved. It’s your job, it’s what you’re there to do, especially when things get difficult . It’s not always nice, it’s not always fun, but that’s the role. It’s a very responsible role and it’s been given to you to manage this school and its future – and you have to take that very seriously. You understand that the job’s not always going to be pleasant, but it’s necessary – and then you focus on the positive things as well, to balance that out.

I suppose being a consultant now gives you a unique view of the education landscape…

I haven’t been doing it for long, but that’s what I’m really looking forward to. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for me to see some best practice – if they’re doing something fantastic over there, I can take that and use it to support somebody else. Sometimes, when you’re based in a school, you become quite school-centred and a bit isolated, so the opportunity to go into lots of different places and pinch their best ideas is really exciting! You get a feel – something that you don’t get when you’re school-based – of what’s going on elsewhere in education. There’s so much more going on, and it’s fascinating to see how all these different places operate.

What are your SBM goals?

Better collaboration. Because the SBM landscape is changing, the role itself is becoming more diversified – the academies’ agenda develops, so all sorts of new roles are springing up. I foresee more specialist roles and more opportunities for school business professionals to work across schools or across sectors, and the opportunities that brings are massive.

Another goal is to see schools work together, and for professionals to work together in a way which they haven’t before. That’s why networking and things like Twitter are so important to enable us to have a nationwide conversation – or even an international one! We’re all doing the same thing, we’re all educating child, so the next step is an international conversation.

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