That sinking feeling

Feel like you’re drowning? Scared by the complexities required by absolutely everything? Facing the consequences of trying to fulfil a job description you are not skilled to do? Stephen Peach, assistant headteacher and business manager, Dacorum Education Support Centre, has felt like this too and has some advice on how to deal with these feelings

I’m relatively new to being a business manager. Before moving across, I was an all-age teacher (literally 4-adult, including teaching IT at secondary level) with a degree in architecture and experience of graphic design with a little project management thrown in for good measure. A very useful skillset for a school business manager as all those things combine perfectly in one role. I feel that, if any area of that knowledge or experience was lacking, I wouldn’t have sufficient skills to do my job. It’s concerned me a lot to see the struggles that my new colleagues suffer when trying to complete tasks they have no knowledge or experience of, in a context they struggle to empathise with.

Two recent cases in point. A couple of years ago, when the national minimum wage went up six per cent, I had the embarrassment of sitting through a presentation by a representative from county bemoaning the fact and reeling off the potential knock-on consequences. This merely highlighted the fact that they had never worked in schools. The few people on minimum wage in a school are those doing the jobs that no-one else wants without whom, schools would close very quickly. No-one actually working in a school would begrudge these people getting a 45p per hour pay increase.

Recently, during a county briefing for business managers, I had to sit through an entire child protection presentation. Child protection should never be part of a business manager’s role as it requires far too much specific knowledge and is more than a full time roll itself. If school business managers are being asked to take this on as well, even in a small way, it seems to me that either someone has completely failed to grasp the skills and experience required to carry out safeguarding effectively, or they think SBLs have time to spare.

Which leads me to my main point; school business managers (SBM)/leaders (SBL)/whatever we’re called this week (WWCTW) are used as a dumping ground for all tasks that headteachers don’t know, and don’t think through. The attitude I see from some headteachers is, ‘It’s not teaching or learning, therefore it falls under the remit of the SBM/SBL/WWCTW, regardless of whether they have the skills, experience or capacity to do the job’.

Take COVID, for example. The job of delivering…pretty much everything has almost universally been deposited into the laps of SBM/SBL/WWCTWs. Now, as (hopefully) they are H&S trained, that makes sense – but a lot of people appointed to the role were given the job for their financial administration skills, with a mumbled expectation from the headteacher that they will be able to pick up everything else. Unsurprisingly, many SBM/SBL/WWCTWs have struggled with the sheer scale and weight of the tasks required of them. The role models held up by county as examples for us to follow are frequently people who have been absolutely dumped on and run ragged, appearing to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

From my observations, the reason for this is that they are just expected to perform, regardless of their skillset and, of course, SBM/SBL/WWCTWs simply put in the hours and the effort until everything does work – and sometimes it nearly breaks them or their families in the process. Headteachers just seem to dump things on the poor SBM/SBL/WWCTWs – many of whom don’t even have degrees, or have much experience of the demands of delivering education or even have developed sufficiently robust thinking processes to be able to plan and manage the people involved to achieve successful project outcomes.

How to address this

  1. Get qualified: ask your school to put you on an apprenticeship degree/MBA before it’s too late.
  2. College courses: highlight the areas where you feel your knowledge is lacking and go on courses and learn about them to boost your confidence.
  3. Surveys: work from a plan made by a professional. If you don’t know how buildings fit together and work, get a condition survey by an independent surveyor to work from. If you don’t know about IT, work with an external consultant and teachers to plan developments that will make the biggest impact and not just give you new kit to complete the same old tasks. (Always get quotes for these – some companies really push their charges.)
  4. Try to be proactive: don’t give yourself the additional job and stress of trying to fix things when they go unexpectedly wrong.
  5. Find out about, and understand, the pressures that teachers in your school work under: I would highly recommend that SBM/SBL/WWCTWs spend quite a bit of time watching the work of the SENDCO. Observe their interactions with young people and make a note of what they do that is successful. Then you will have a benchmark with which to judge what you see happening around the school and you can ensure your chosen strategic priorities help, rather than hinder, the work of the school.
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