From the magazine; Leading from the front

The nature of school business management requires a high degree of agility – the ability to juggle the many aspects of the role. School business manager Stephanie Leigh has this down to a tee

What attracts people to the school business manager role? Usually, the diversity, the changing and challenging nature of a role that requires an unparalleled level of organisation and the tenacity to be able to juggle several things at once. Sound familiar?

That’s what brought Stephanie Leigh to school business management. Interestingly, she had worked for an airline for nine years and wanted change – change which still allowed her to use the skills she had developed. More than just working in finance, she wanted to apply her organisational skills and her ability to manage multiple things at once.

A whole school experience
Stephanie’s first role was just what she was after – something a little bit different which, in addition to school business management, included an exam officer aspect to the role that brought new challenges. Stephanie had to learn from scratch and it meant that she engaged with the children, ensuring they understood the rules around exams. “I got a taste for working with them – which I’d never done before. I’m a judo coach, so I’ve coached children in sport, but never on a professional level,” she explains.

For Stephanie, working with students is an essential part of the role in addition to business management; however, she recognises it’s not something all business managers can do – whether that’s due to a boundary set by their head or the requirements of the school. Stephanie’s been lucky; the heads she has worked with have encouraged her and have enabled her to do things like manage her school’s eco-team. “It wouldn’t necessarily come within my role but I’m really interested in the environment and so – because the geography teacher didn’t have the capacity – our head said, ‘Stef, would you like to do it?’”

However, while there are many positives to the school business management role, it is an increasingly challenging sector as resources are squeezed and demands increase. One source of support that is proving invaluable is the growing community of school business professionals – happy to share their experience and sector knowledge with one another, to lend a helping hand where necessary and focused on CPD and equipping themselves with the skills necessary to continue to thrive.

A collective approach
This focus on continued professional development (CPD) and networking has led to the establishment of the flourishing West Sussex SBL group – something Stephanie’s very proud to have been a part of. The group came about after a conversation with an individual from West Sussex County Council who was responsible for support staff CPD. “She was sending emails promoting conferences for this and that – but none for SBMs. So, I emailed her to ask, ‘Why?’ She responded and asked if I would like to help her organise one.”

Step one was to bring together a committee to make the conference a reality; Stephanie engaged some SBM-colleagues from other schools – representing primary, secondary and special schools. Everything followed from there – working together to identify what the conference should look like and setting out the subjects to be covered. They were told that they needed 30 people to sign up for the event to go ahead; the flyers went out – and about a week later they had around 60 signed up to attend.

Onwards and upwards
That was the first West Sussex SBM conference; just after I spoke to Stephanie, the group held their seventh! The conference pays for itself and generates additional income by engaging key education suppliers – approved by members – and allowing them a presence at the conference. Any surplus made is invested right back into the local SBM-community so, in addition to providing a hub for learning and networking, the conferences enable the West Sussex School Business Managers to invest in additional CPD for members.

It’s all about providing focused CPD; only seminars and workshops that are relevant to members are organised, and it’s an effective way of ensuring CPD is available to those in the area who are interested, without the cost of travelling to access it and, ultimately, making savings for the individuals and the schools. “When pupil premium came in, for example, and we were told we had to track it – but no one told us how – I engaged someone to come and do a session on pupil premium tracking,” Stephanie says. “I knew the demand was there; it was just a matter of meeting that demand,” she adds.

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The knowledge exchange
The West Sussex SBM group allows SBMs from many schools to come together on specific school matters, for example, going out to tender. “When a number of us were looking to change our energy contract we invited four providers to come to us and do a presentation. Instead of schools seeing them individually, we saw them together, and the companies coming paid a set price to cover it,” she says. This is an approach they’ve used for other things too, such as health and safety, HR, payroll, etc; it continues to prove successful as providers are measured by the group’s collective experience.

This collective contribution, and exchange of knowledge, is supported by the online forum which the group has developed with the assistance of Neil Limbrick – IT manager and founder of the Education Collective which powers many SBM group sites and forums – providing a central point through which all members can communicate and their cumulative knowledge can be shared; it’s a better way of working and communicating. “My goal had always been to set up a forum so we didn’t have to rely on email and could actually reach out across the country,” Stephanie tells us.

“Neil’s amazing because he’s so flexible and he is always evolving the forum,” Stephanie says. There are now about 200 members on the forum – all active – and all can post on the discussion board on a range of topics. There’s the ‘marketplace’, where schools can exchange or give away items that are no longer of use, or are surplus, a link to the national forum, a place for vacancies – which is useful for more than hiring as it can also provide a benchmark in terms of pay scales for certain jobs, job descriptions/roles, or how advertisements are worded.

A little innovation
What Stephanie has achieved for SBMs in her area has caught the attention of other local senior leaders; an out-of-the-blue ‘phone call from a SBM colleague on behalf of her headteacher led to a conversation about how headteachers in the area could do something similar – from CPD conferences to forum. She was invited to speak to a small group of heads about the evolution of the West Sussex SBM group – explaining how it works and, importantly, how it benefits business managers and their schools in the local area. “They’ve now set up their own website and forum,” Stephanie says.
What Stephanie has achieved with the West Sussex SBMs demonstrates just what can be done with a little imagination, a lot of innovation and a willingness to put yourself out there.

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