How has the role of the SBM changed during the pandemic?

A lot has changed during the pandemic. With school closures, changing rules and regulations, fluctuating pupil and staff numbers, SBMs have had a lot to contend with. How has the role changed since March 2020, and which changes will be carried forward? We asked you to find out!

Paul Burke, business manager, All Saints CE Primary School

I’m a relatively new SBL. I started my role the September before COVID-19 swept the country in March. What is the normal for an SBL? For me, this is the normal. I didn’t have a full year I could compare it to. So, what did I do before the pandemic, and how was it different afterwards?

When I started as an SBL I didn’t have contacts beyond my local SBL group. Over time I learnt there was a national SBL group on Twitter. I am not a social media user, so it was all new to me – resonant with the 10% braver stories being shared now. This was my world, where everything was new, and I had to jump in with both feet whether I wanted to or not. I wanted to learn and be the best version of myself.

For me, SBL twitter has been brilliant. The group are caring, passionate and determined to do what is right for the children – whilst having a laugh along the way. The help and support SBLs give each other on this platform has been great to be part of, and learn from.

My first budget didn’t feel like mine, as it was based on historical information plus a % rise – but fast forward 12 months and the next budget is mine. I have learnt a lot about the school in that time, and seen areas that can be improved, and I like to think I have created a budget agile enough to support these changes. COVID-19 meant a lot of our usual contractors were furloughed, and getting quotes and an idea of costings was trickier. Now we are seeing the restrictions being lifted, and contractors coming onto site, albeit wearing PPE, which may be the one change we don’t see go away?

Meetings before the pandemic were long and drawn out. Having virtual meetings has kept the meetings on point and moving along in a more timely fashion. Our governors meetings keep to the agenda and have been quicker than if we met in person; it’s greener for the environment too with no travel involved.

What I love about the role is having great support teams behind me. As an example, our site manager started around the same time I did; we inherited a school where the site needed a lot of TLC, and the routine checks needed carrying out consistently. Fast forward to today, and those tough early days of trying to get things sorted are firmly in the ‘lessons learnt’ cupboard; there is now a sense of calm on site, and the jobs are done in a timely manner. I couldn’t have done this on my own. We all need help and support.

Google Maps has had the cheek to remind me every month for the last six months or so that I have visited three places in the month – home, work, and the supermarket. Thanks Google for reminding me of the full life I lead!! NOT!! I am looking forward to going to gigs again and seeing family who live at opposite ends of the country. I will get my revenge on Google.

Prior to the pandemic, with my SBL finance L-plates firmly in place, I was learning how all the finance pieces fell into place. During COVID the DfE guidance was, at best, challenging and, more surprising to me, it was released to schools at the same time as the general public! Planning for the new guidance was nearly impossible as it came out on a Friday evening and it had to be implemented first thing Monday morning. So another lesson was learnt – be flexible.

Grants that had never been there before needed applying for, along with the deadlines to hit. I re-shaped the budget a lot during the pandemic. I mean A LOT. I still do this. Nothing has changed. This is my new normal.

I am on SBL twitter @sbm_paul, and I would love to hear from you.

Marie Lane, school business manager, St Edward’s School, Poole

There have been many unexpected challenges during the pandemic which have required school business managers’ rapid responses – from organising testing and track and trace, to catering in bubbles and working remotely. For me, as school business manager responding to shielding and homeworking, the highlight of the school’s pandemic response has been how the support teams have pulled together and stepped up a level to meet so many challenges. This is something we will definitely be building on, going forward.

Two weeks of focused testing meant we had to build a cross-department team and this was a great team building project with people from different groups working together, and with parents and governors and using skills even they didn’t know they had! We are now looking at ways of harnessing this flexibility into ‘business as usual’ by introducing an inter-departmental development programme.

Pandemic team-working has not only been internal; with all the changing COVID rules, the local SBM network has really shown its worth. It has been extremely useful for sharing knowledge, and has been a supportive resource for busy business managers. Although we have not been able to meet, we have shared many questions over email, maintaining a strong network which will certainly carry on when the pandemic is a mere memory. 

Jane Percival, school business manager, Peareswood Primary School

What a strange and interesting time it’s been as an SBM in the midst of this pandemic. We have become experts in risk assessment, DfE and local authority reporting, reacting quickly to bubble closures, and keeping parents informed. We have had to become more knowledgeable in every aspect of school life. The SBM team within the trust really gelled as a solid force and here we are, coming out the other end – still promoting the one-way system and offering lateral flow tests!

When the school first closed, and we went on a rota system, I suddenly found myself working at a different school; this meant new faces, new children, new building and cake! This is where you realise the versatility of your skills, and I gained so much from the experience.

As we took turns in being in school and working from home, I became an expert in online communication platforms like Teams, which really changed school life. We could now meet online, and have catch up with our own teams. We could stay in touch, support each other, and it was lovely how we all took care of each other. I think, as a whole team, we have come out of this closer than before. 

Alison Dean, school business manager, Moorlands Primary School

‘Adapt and change’ is a slogan for every SBL but seems to have been the daily mantra since March 2020. The pandemic has proved that collaboration, communication and challenge are key.   

Collaboration with colleagues has reached new heights. Everyone, whatever level across school, has pitched in to problem-solve and just ‘make things work’; we’re a much better, more cohesive team for it.   The tremendous support network of local SBLs has been invaluable, and there’s a firm commitment to maintaining the help and advice we can offer each other moving forward.    

The impact of embracing new technology has been pivotal. There was no choice – we had to implement new ways of working. Not normally my role, confidently promoting effective new ICT to colleagues, parents and other stakeholders was scary and challenging, but incredibly worthwhile.  It’s also prompted a fundamental overhaul of business functions, with great results.   

Reviewing, questioning, seeking alternatives in order to actively make improvement is the new norm. No longer mired in routine, and held back by tradition, there is empowerment and support to propose and make changes in a new ‘anything is possible’ organisational culture.  

The pandemic has been, and continues to be, tough for many of us. However, the challenge of working throughout to champion excellent, high quality provision for our pupils remains a privilege.   

Peter Sircar, director finance and operations, The London Oratory School

SBLs were sailing through the predictable landscape when the pandemic suddenly struck and disrupted education globally. It shook the very foundations of education management. For a period, there was complete chaos; it was a perfect storm that needed to be dealt with by an unprepared profession. However, the SBLs quickly re-grouped to deal with this unprecedented challenge. The key changes to the role included the following:

Focus on risk management: SBLs now had to be focused on risk management aspects of the role. This included risk assessments, social distancing, intensive cleaning, ventilation, disinfection, signage etcetera.

Managing distributed teams: the SBLs have had to learn to manage staff teams working from different locations. They have had to swiftly learn to empathise and knit the staff together using innovative digital communication means.

Technological changes: The pandemic required swift implementation of a range of cloud-based remote learning and working solutions. SBLs also learnt to quickly improve their cyber security understanding and to deal with the emerging wave of cyber fraud and ransomware threats.

Well-being support: In this environment the SBLs had to learn to look after staff mental health and well-being needs.

The crisis caused by the pandemic has redefined SBLs’ role and led to innovative ways of working. In this environment it is essential for the profession to develop its crisis and change management skills.

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