What does the typical SBL look like?

The last 20 years has brought great changes to the profession. So, in 2018, what did the typical school business professional look like, asks Hilary Goldsmith

Credit: this is an edited version of a story first seen in Tes

Conjure up in your mind, if you will, the 20th-century stereotypical school bursar. Hold the image there for a few moments and let it develop. Visualise the character that’s appearing through the mists of your imagination. What’s their name? What are they wearing? How old are they? What’s their career history?  What’s their marital status? Social standing? Interests?

If you’ve just conjured up Roger Courtney-Bennett, wearing a Marks & Spencer blazer and slacks, aged 54, ex-military, married to Margaret, two children – Ann and David – treasurer of the bowls club and neighbourhood watch activist, award yourself 10 points.

Now, jump forward 20 years to the 2010s and do the same again, but this time visualise a school business manager. Hands up if you’ve got a variation on Jackie, 46, ex-bank clerk/LA finance officer, married to Barry, two children – Charlotte and Sophie – girl guide leader, loves baking and Strictly.

There have been huge changes
Close? Well, of course, these are ridiculous stereotypes, but the illustration was to point out how much the profession has changed in under 20 years, and how different the role of school business leader has become. Roger ran the accounts and the ordered the stationery. He kept a very close eye on the caretaker and his best shot at HR was to take the troublesome member of staff on a walk around the rugby pitch where he would expedite their departure with a week’s money and the promise of a decent reference. Health and safety meant not standing near a tree in a storm, and communication with parents happened once a year, at ‘Open Morning’, when he shouted at them not to take the shortcut through the rose garden.

Life for Roger was fairly predictable; he ran a tight and steady ship, he had a balanced budget and he upheld a sense of tradition, stability and purpose.

Jackie, on the other hand, is a part-qualified accountant, with a level five HR qualification, working 50 hours a week, on average. She line manages a team of seven, does a lunchtime duty, is studying for her IOSH health and safety certificate and is mentoring an apprentice receptionist in her spare time. She’s just been given responsibility for the school website, marketing and GDPR and receives about 120 emails a day. She wants to get the hang of Twitter but she never really has the time. When she gets home, she spends a couple of hours every evening replying to emails and catching up, and usually falls asleep on the sofa.

Part of Jackie’s job is to write strategic plans for ICT, marketing and premises. She sort of knows what the next two or three years will bring, but she’s been asked to map out the next five-10 years and doesn’t really know where to start. Already, Jackie is feeling that she’s getting left behind, that the pace of change, the evolution of new school systems and structures, and the ever-changing rules on everything are impossible to keep abreast of.

So, if we look back to look forward, it would seem inevitable that in another 20 years we won’t recognise the SBL function in whatever form it exists. There might well be an Ava or a Noah, whose job(s) it is to run ed-support functions, but they’ll probably be doing it from an interactive command centre, remote from the seat of learning.

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‘Workload isn’t going to diminish’
No-one has a crystal ball but, if we look at the evolution of the SBL role, it’s pretty clear that the workload isn’t going to diminish any time soon. If we were to hazard a guess at what education will look like in the future, we’d probably come up with a tech-led, virtual reality, where large global corporations are licensed to run education through a programme of personalised apps delivered directly to a child through an online facility. Schools themselves? Greenhouse facilities set to optimum learning environment by some pre-set, government-approved logarithm.

So where does that leave Jackie, floundering in a role that has become bigger than her? As far as I can see there are two options; we either lessen the requirements of the business leader function, or we split the requirements out to those specialist roles best able to deliver them.

We’ve talked before about the emergence of new SBL specialisms in MATs and partnerships which have grown too big to be managed by one person. SBLs are starting to diversify into these new roles and to choose their areas of expertise – the finance lead, the operations officer, the HR specialist or the growth and commercial specialist. Matthew Clements-Wheeler has done some fascinating career-mapping for SBLs which sets out possible paths from single school SBM to nationwide system leader.

But, for Jackie, who actually loves her role and the diversity it brings, this isn’t a solution. She needs resources, support, advice and tools to make her job better, and her workload possible. And, as the LA model disintegrates – often for all the right reasons – along with it goes a central, go-to place for SBLs to use as their manual, their professional anchor and their checklist of what to do and when to do it.

Establishing the future of the profession
For me, that is the next challenge for the SBL community – to find a means and a method of sharing resources, supporting each other and establishing a collective responsibility for our profession and our colleagues within it. I don’t know what form that might take – maybe one central place, or a number of go-tos – but I have a growing sense that this is something that we’re lacking, and something that we need.

I don’t doubt for a second that the SBL and teaching communities have all the solutions, all the resources and all the skills that our education system needs to survive and to thrive but, perhaps, what we need is a different approach to how we go about delivering this?

It’s an exciting and fascinating time to be in education, notwithstanding the significant hurdles we face in funding, recruitment and wellbeing. The solutions can, and will, come from within, from the people who care enough about our collective professions to make change happen for the better.

Let’s think creatively about how we, as professional proble-solvers, can help our colleagues and our peers, and see if we can get Jackie out of the hole she’s in, and back on top, where she belongs.

Hilary Goldsmith is director of finance and operations at a large secondary school and tweets at @sbl365

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