Keeping SBM groups functioning during the pandemic and beyond

Sue Edwards, managing director at the LASBM Alliance Ltd, discusses the challenges of running an SBM network group during COVID-19 and how she overcame the many hurdles the pandemic presented to continue to support members

What happened to school business managers’ networks when the country (world, even!) was in lockdown? Our main purpose is to provide regular conferences for our members’ professional development and, suddenly, we were unable to deliver them. Would we be able to keep going? How could we continue to provide value for money for our members and sponsors?

As with all other organisations, we needed to come up with a plan to ensure it would be business as usual so that our stakeholders would continue to feel valued and remain loyal to the group.

We considered our priorities and aims during the pandemic:

  • To provide an effective communication network for members.
  • To provide relevant CPD for members.
  • To support the group financially through sponsorship of the online community, events and advertising.
  • To remain a constant during trying times.

Like many other SBM network groups, we have an active online community, providing great opportunities for members and sponsors to communicate with each other. Probably unsurprisingly, the pandemic led to more activity on the site than in normal times, as the problems members were facing (free school meal vouchers, lateral flow testing, managing staff/pupil illness and self-isolation, etc) were common to all.

Two of our committee members commented, “COVID-19 brought with it so many new challenges it was difficult to know where to turn for advice and support as we were all in uncharted territory.  I feel very fortunate to be part of such a strong and active network in my area (LASBM), so I never felt completely alone. There was (and still is!) always someone willing to help, or share ideas and experiences, so that what could seem a daunting and insurmountable problem was shared, halved and generally solved, together.”

Andrea Barnes, business manager, Penwortham Girls’ High School

“Being a relatively new SBM, for me, being part of my local network (LASBM) has been invaluable in giving me support and guidance. The global pandemic has brought the SBL community even closer together, with us all facing the same challenges and experiences. Having the support of the online network means that it doesn’t matter if the person is just down the road or 250 miles away, we have all been on the same journey and are therefore able to offer support through forums or virtual conferences. I know without the support of the network then the last 18 months would have been a lot more challenging and isolating.”

Vicki Newsome, school business manager, Burscough Village Primary School 

“When the pandemic situation failed to improve, with restrictions still in place, it was time to consider how we might provide CPD for our members as an alternative to live events.  Members and sponsors were clearly missing conferences and we had had to cancel our two summer term events in 2020.  We considered virtual conferences using Zoom but didn’t feel that the platform would be conducive to the level of interactivity we were hoping to achieve. A bit of research led us to the Hopin platform as an option for delivering events, and we used it to put on our first virtual event in October 2020. Although nothing can compare with the buzz of a live conference, Hopinenabled us to represent our live events much more effectively. Its features include a main stage, meeting rooms, an expo area (for our sponsors), and online and video chat facilities. Unlike with live conferences, we were not limited by space, so could include more delegates than usual. Feedback on the event was excellent, which encouraged us to go on to provide a further two virtual conferences this year, both of which received great feedback.

We have been very aware that our members were missing their conference days out, especially the lovely lunches they always get at our events, so wanted to provide something extra as part of their membership. Sadly for them, this wasn’t food, but fortunately our site provider, Neil Limbrick of The Education Collective, had set up a virtual learning zone (VLZ), to which we subscribed so we could make it available to our full members.  The VLZ is an ever-growing collection of video presentations on (currently) 15 topics within eight topic areas relevant to SBMs and is available at an extra cost to groups who use the same provider. Members are able to access the videos at times to suit themselves and select the relevant topics to meet their professional development needs.

Another change we made since the start of the pandemic was to increase the frequency of our e-newsletters. Previously, we had provided a termly newsletter, but in the absence of live events we upped this to around monthly during term time. The reasons for this were twofold; it was important to be seen to be active and keep the LASBM flag flying, and our valued partners and sponsors were keen to find other ways of engaging with our members and the wider community.

We appreciate that the reason for some SBM network groups being put ‘on the back burner’ during the pandemic was because of the increased responsibilities and time constraints for those group leaders working in schools. Having retired from my school job five years ago, I have been able to dedicate my time to running the group – with the added advantage of already having a home office – so it has been easier for us than for most groups. Because we recognised the pressures on other group leaders, we extended an invitation to them and their members to attend our virtual events and had a small number of takers.

We are now looking forward to the autumn term when we will, hopefully, be able to proceed with our two planned live conferences. If anything changes in the meantime, we will be ready to change our plans.

I have been asked recently how we might ‘come back’ from the pandemic.  My response was to say we’ve never been away and it’s been business as usual – done differently, but still going!”

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