Podcast highlights: why SBLs are vital to the success of a school

If you’re a school business leader and you’re looking to develop your relationship with a new head, or work on your relationship with your existing head, then this episode is for you. And, if you’re a headteacher and you want to get the best out of your school business leader, then this episode is for you too

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On today’s episode I’m joined by Vicki Manning. Vicki is a primary headteacher with broad leadership experiences and has worked in a range of different areas including Reading, Southall, Slough and currently High Wycombe. She’s committed to providing high quality equitable education for all pupils from a diverse range of backgrounds. In her spare time she enjoys running and looking after her new puppy. Vicki believes in the power of reflection and the importance of self-improvement and growth and is passionate about developing others. That’s what Vicki and I will be talking about today, in particular the role of the School Business Manager, and why it is essential to the overall success of a school.

So, you talk me through it; what’s your journey been like as a head with the role of school business manager?

So, I’m quite a new headteacher, I’m coming up to three years in my school, and when I came to the school I had had, as you said in the intro, some experiences in different areas, but I hadn’t worked in this area before. So there was the challenge of taking my first headship, but also taking on a school in an area that I was unfamiliar with. I also came in at Easter, so it wasn’t a new school year and there were lots of challenges around recruitment and things like that.

I hadn’t ever worked with a business manager as Headteacher though I’d had some interaction with them and had an idea of what the role involved. It was quite a new thing to come in and have this person who holds all the information about finances, the premises and lots of HR things – also GDPR was quite new around then. She had all of this information around things that as a new headteacher I worried most about because I’d obviously had a lot of teaching experience, working with children, working with parents, all of those things you do throughout your career, but it’s not until you get into headship and leadership where you start to look at those elements of the role; premises, finance, staffing etc. Things like that are so key to the running of the school, but as a new headteacher, they are new things that you don’t really have any experience with.

It’s quite intimidating as a new headteacher to be having those conversations with a business manager, somebody who is so knowledgeable and has so much information about things that you don’t really know much about yet like finance whilst also trying to learn about budgeting, funding, premises and managing a site and thinking about the things that need to happen to keep that site running. It’s all very new so when you talk to somebody who is very experienced, it can feel like there’s a bit of a gap, and you want to say, ‘Can you just tell me in layman’s terms?’

My business manager has great inter-personal skills and is very down to earth, and that was really welcoming as a brand new headteacher, not knowing the school and coming in mid-year, to be able to say to somebody, ‘Right, can you please just help me unpick this, I’m quite new to it?’ A business manager has so much information about the building, the school, the staffing, they’ve got lots of information that is just so helpful as a new headteacher to help you very quickly understand the context that you’re going into, and to start to think about moving forward, because you want to hit the ground running, but you’ve also got to get to know the school.

I found right at the beginning the business manager role helpful in getting to know the school, but also in starting to unpick some of those areas that I wasn’t so confident about. So yes, it was really valuable at the beginning of my headship to build that relationship with the business manager straightaway.

How has the relationship developed, how is it now and how has it deepened?

I think now it’s putting that time in regularly to meet with each other, and to have these conversations and work together on things. It means that we are at a point where we’re on the same page. My business manager is part of the Senior Leadership Team and comes along to those meetings. She’s a great sounding board as well – she’s involved in conversations around teaching and learning, and around parents and other elements of the school. So where I’m talking about a staffing change that might have an impact on the budget, and she might be worrying about that, and how do we manage that financially, she’s got more of an understanding of the big picture because she’s been a part of those conversations.

And because we have those regular check-ins, I tell her what I’m thinking and I use her as a sounding board, by the time we get to a decision she’s been part of that journey. Over time that means that we’re very familiar with how we work, we’re on the same page in terms of what we want for the school, and that helps with making those decisions. We’re not butting heads with it as we’ve been on that journey together.

So, how would you sum-up the ingredients of the successful relationship that you’ve got with your business manager?

Communication is essential and giving that time. We try as best we can to put in a fortnightly catch up, it’s been more frequently recently given COVID, there’s so much to manage with that.  But yes, communication and making time for that. Also, openness, that’s how we build trust. As a headteacher, as I mentioned at the beginning of headship, being able to say to my business manager, ‘Finance is something I’m not sure about, can you support me with this?’ and in the same way, her being able to come to me about things is important. We’re quite open with each other about what our development points are, and she’s able to say to me, ‘This is difficult, what can we do to support with that?’

So openness, honesty, time to meet and discuss things with each other, and communication, because lots of the situations that she deals with are really complex and will take a lot of time to resolve, and by the time it gets to me she’s already been on a journey with it. But then I might be the one who has to discuss it with governors, or present it to staff, and my business manager is very good at breaking that down for me, ‘This is what happened, this is what I’ve done about it.’ She’s very good at providing me with a summary.

I’ve got a governor’s meeting tomorrow and she’s emailed me some information about staff and said  ‘This might be useful, here you go.’ So yes, communication and making sure you put things in place for that to happen as easily as possible, because the situations that a business manager deals with are complex, and you often need quick communication in the school day, to get that information across.

In terms of the role of business manager, you talk about this being like the Headteacher role, in that you are the ‘only ones’ in your school. Obviously, you’ve got your SLT and how the SLT functions, and they have each other as a team but do you have to do anything different with your business manager in terms of line management or development?

Absolutely, it’s so unique. It does work very differently and what I’ve found with my business manager is that as I’ve said, she’s fabulous, she’s really strong, she knows a lot, she’s very experienced and she’s more than capable of managing a lot of quite complex things going on in the school. She takes on a lot, she took on GDPR when that came in, she supports a lot with HR, when we have a complex matter going on, she’s someone I really lean on with that. So it would be really easy to say she’s fine, she’s performing really well, she doesn’t need CPD, let’s let her get on with it. But actually it’s such a demanding role that you need somewhere to put that, and you need somewhere to discuss that, and get support and to network, and what we found really valuable for that role is coaching. It’s something that as a head teacher I find really powerful.

We’ve looked into that for the business manager role, and that’s been really transformative because my business manager is brilliant and will continue to be brilliant, but what that’s brought for is the ability to be more autonomous about her development. She’s very good at what she does and doesn’t necessarily need a lot in terms of CPD around setting a budget and things like that. She keeps up with those things, but actually what’s really powerful is the time to reflect and to develop her own self-awareness, and to take an autonomous approach to her development.

She does a great job, and she has the power to reflect on how things are going, and to make changes herself. So yes, I think the coaching element is really powerful for me as a headteacher, but it’s equally as powerful for a business manager. Also, to have that network too – she’s attended conferences where she’s met other business managers, and other people in similar roles. I know she’s got links with a couple of local school business managers too, so there’s that network of people who get it, and understand the role that she can share and talk things through with. Then the coaching to allows her to talk through the complex things that she’s working through, to develop that self-awareness, and to think about well-being aswell.

Sometimes the things that a business manager has to do are difficult, and they can have an impact on your wellbeing, and it’s really helpful for her to have the opportunity to talk that through and to unpick things, and to feel supported.

Have you got any final thoughts or anything that you’d like to share before we finish?

Well, I think the business manager role is amazing in what business managers manage to do for schools, and the amount that’s involved in that. We’re a one-form entry school and so my business manager takes on all of that side of things, and I think that’s just incredible. So, I think business managers do a fantastic job, often in difficult circumstances, and managing budgets that I’m sure they wish were much bigger. It’s a fantastic role and it really does have an impact on the whole school.

I hope that business managers do have the support and the opportunity to do things like coaching, to network together and to really share those more difficult elements of the role, but also to celebrate the things that they’re doing really well, because they do a lot, and it’s a lot that’s not always seen by everybody. I think a lot of it can happen without anybody knowing that its going on. So yeah, final thoughts are, business managers are fantastic!

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