Two decades, a thousand lessons learnt

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Ro Smith, school business manager at Long Furlong Primary School, tells us all about the highs and lows of her journey through school business management

One school, five headteachers, 21 years’ hard labour and innumerable changes. In the last part of 2020, life gave me an unexpected opportunity to reflect on my role as school business manager in a one-form entry maintained primary school. I had a stroke, followed by two months off work recuperating, and this is what came to mind.

My aim, from when I was a young child, was to be a primary teacher; a family friend who had recently qualified gave me all the lesson plans from her final teaching practice, and woe betide my toys if they didn’t pay attention in my lessons! After A-levels I started studying a B. Ed. with history but, after two terms, I realised it wasn’t for me.

I found a job as a local authority housing officer, an experience which gave me a firm grounding in dealing with difficult people (one of my delightful clients once informed me he was going to find out where I lived and burn my house down – counterproductive in many ways, as my family would then be rehoused before him). After that, I became a customer services manager for a national electronics rental company, where I quickly learnt how strongly some people feel about their TV remote control not working (I believe this merits a #firstworldproblems mention).

In 1999, when my son had started school, the world of education called out to me again – this time in the form of working in the school office one day a week processing dinner money and being responsible for the IT support of our ICT ‘suite’ as we laughingly called our nine desktop computers! Over time, this increased to three days a week and, when the office manager left, to five days – with me in the exalted position of school business manager!

Twenty-one years is a long time to stay in one workplace but, with all the changes that have taken place – externally AND internally – I hope I haven’t fallen into the trap of becoming ‘stale’, using the dreaded words “Well, we’ve ALWAYS done it like this”!

Bittersweet

There are some aspects of the job I enjoy more than others; creating a new budget is always a bittersweet challenge and I’m currently focused on cyber security and health and safety, but premises-related issues make my heart sink. I’ve checked my job description a couple of times, but have yet to find ‘On demand, remove dead birds from school site – including those which have been torn into several pieces’, but it has to be done. Pretty much the only line I draw is first aid; being in the office for most of the day I’m too easy to find, and would end up doing little other than applying wet paper towels to microscopic grazes.

Being British, it is, of course, unseemly to celebrate my own successes, but I’ve passed both the CSBM and the DSBM, and am a qualified clerk to governors. Having last year completed a classical studies degree with the Open University – six years of Roman and Greek history, literature, arts, and a wedge of Latin – I’ve vowed not to take on any more study that involves deadlines and/or assessments.

Pandemic lockdowns have had a silver lining to the cloud in that there’s been a vast increase in remote learning and webinars relevant to the SBM role, and learning opportunities continue to be plentiful. In-school successes? I was delighted, after a number of years of persuasion, to get LED lighting and PIRs installed throughout the school; I’m always keen to implement technology to help the management of the school run more effectively. In the last year we’ve changed the management information system and now wonder why we stuck with the old one for so long. Use the tools you have as fully as possible to get your money’s worth; if you only use your MIS to hold pupil and staff records and run the census, you need to look for a new one!

Network, network

One of the most valuable resources for growing in the role is networking. Until fairly recently, this involved going to a conference and, in the breaks, tentatively starting up a conversation with a stranger, hoping that (a) you didn’t get stuck with them for the rest of the day and (b) they didn’t think they were going to be stuck with YOU for the rest of the day. Thankfully, things are more civilised now – in many areas you can join a local SBM group (see here) or just contact a school local to you to form links. Social media is a fantastic source of help, support and inspiration; SBMs have an active presence on Twitter, and I’ve found it invaluable for information sharing, moan-bonding and amusement.

Things aren’t all sweetness and light in the SBM world; if you can’t spin a whole canteen of plates at the same time, it’s not the role for you. You might not always be popular – often, you’re the one saying ‘No’, because of budget constraints, time constraints, rules and regs constraints. Try your best to say ‘Yes’ whenever you can; it makes the negatives slightly more palatable. Just as you won’t always be popular, there will be colleagues who rub you up the wrong way; bear this with fortitude, present a smiling front, and do your best to remember that we’re all different (keep the pins and wax dolls at home)!

In my school, there are only two of us in the admin team. To get on with your immediate colleague(s) is great; I am immensely thankful to work with someone who is amazingly capable, shares my passion for solving a problem (‘Call the helpline? I don’t think so!’) and is one of the most thoughtful and generous people I know. Not everyone is so fortunate, but if you’re involved in the recruitment of team members, think carefully about the kind of person you are, the kind of person you work well with, and how you can build the strongest possible professional – and, hopefully, personal – relationship.

My advice to anyone stepping into the SBM role is to start by listening and looking. There will undoubtedly be some things you want to change, but don’t go charging in with all guns blazing! Talk to everyone around you, and listen properly to what they’re saying. Look carefully at the systems and processes in place, and prioritise what needs to change following consultation.

The final pieces of advice aren’t mine, but those of a good friend (one of our previous heads – thanks FAT!) Firstly, ‘Choose your Waterloo’. Is it really worth arguing to the death over the type of toilet roll dispenser in the pupils’ toilets? Secondly, my friend once described herself in her first year of headship as ‘Leading from the front, but not looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was following’.

Be an amazing leader… but keep an eye over your shoulder!

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