School business professionals are playing a central leadership role during the pandemic. Now it’s time for their contribution to be fully recognised, say Val Andrew and Leyla Tovey of School Business Services
School business leaders have been stretched to their limits as they play a key part in the battle to keep schools operating safely during the pandemic.
But they’ve done more than just cope in difficult circumstances; they’ve shown their leadership mettle during the most difficult times the education system has seen since the Second World War. To heavily paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr, you find the measure of someone from where they stand during times of challenge, rather than times of comfort and convenience. This has certainly been the case with school business leaders – who have made such a remarkable contribution to keeping our education system functioning that they cannot be ignored now, or in the future.
Recent surveys show that this sea-change in the leadership standing of school business leaders is more than just speculation. While in pre-COVID times surveys consistently highlighted the frustration that some SBLs felt in being left out of leadership forums in their schools, new insights show that this is changing, with one survey reporting that SBLs have seen a dramatic transformation in colleagues’ understanding of their responsibilities compared with before the pandemic.
It’s worth looking at how SBLs have responded as leaders to the crisis by examining how they have deployed the following core leadership skills:
Communication skills. When schools remained open for key worker and vulnerable children during the national lockdown SBLs found themselves responsible for reviewing, interpreting and then disseminating a plethora of information and guidance to make sense of the new operational requirements. Staff, pupils, parents and the wider school communities all relied heavily on this information flow at local level.
Strong ethical/moral purpose. As in the NHS, this quality is abundant in our schools, and school leaders and SBLs are no exception. With their substantial business expertise, SBLs could earn hefty private sector salaries but they have chosen an education role because they want to give something back to local communities. They showed this moral purpose during lockdown. Up and down the land SBLs fought to ensure that families in need received their FSM vouchers and food parcels, with some SBLs deciding to deliver food parcels themselves. All this was done while they juggled long hours and a mass of other responsibilities with their own complex family commitments.
Innovation and creativity. Before 2020 most SBLs would tell you that finance and HR matters took up most of their time. The pandemic changed this. SBLs had to focus on the safety of the school environment. Site management is often not a key skill possessed by SBLs and, although some are fortunate to have a very competent and effective site team, SBLs have usually developed their site management skills and competencies over time. The pandemic threw many practitioners in at the deep end, and they stepped up and provided resources and guidance where and when it was most needed. This adaptability and great leadership allowed their headteachers, and the rest of the leadership team, to concentrate on changes to the delivery of the curriculum. In refocusing, SBLs couldn’t afford to let other responsibilties, such as finance and HR, fall by the wayside; many turned to professional service providers such as SBS to provide interim support.
Positive responses to change. “But we’ve always done it this way,” is one of the protest phrases that haunts so many! SBLs are adept at putting a positive spin on any change to a system, process or culture, and the pandemic certainly provided a classic opportunity for them to be able to showcase this skill. They’ve had to manage significant changes to school areas to accommodate social distancing, increased sanitisation and the intake of children in different ‘bubbles’. Alongside this they have shown their robust emotional intelligence by identifying and supporting colleagues when their mental health and wellbeing has been under pressure.
The pandemic made all of us refocus on the people who are most important to us in our personal lives, and I think the same is happening in the professional sphere. We’re noticing those school business colleagues who always go the extra mile to help us, who magically convert spaces into workable and safer learning environments, who tirelessly seek out any additional funding available to cover additional costs and who just seem to be constants in our tumultuous working environment.
Leadership isn’t ever about the title on the badge – it’s about how you make people feel and the reliability factor. It’s about those who are prepared to roll up their sleeves and take responsibility, those who demonstrate passion, commitment, integrity and, not least, humility. SBLs everywhere have been showcasing these skills by the bucket-load.
I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that, in the future, they are fully recognised as the highly effective and committed school leaders they so obviously are.
Val Andrew is an advisor at School Business Services (SBS) and Fellow of ISBL. Leyla Tovey is Head of Professional Services at School Business Services (SBS), which is a specialist provider of budgeting, finance, MIS and ICT services to schools. www.schoolbusinessservices.co.uk