With a little help from my peers

Val Andrew and Leyla Tovey of School Business Services explore the benefits of professional support networks and suggest a three-step strategy to support wellbeing

School business leaders are brilliant at supporting their school colleagues. It’s the nature of the job, but the role can make them feel isolated and sometimes overwhelmed. With COVID-19 transforming every aspect of school life SBLs, and their school leadership colleagues, are committing to unusually long days and even forfeiting leave so that they can continue to cover the operational challenges of making schools safe.

Of course, the job was pressurised before the pandemic turned everything upside down. SBLs have been battling with stressed budgets for some time, forcing them to focus on annual staffing structure reviews and the constant streamlining of staffing to make the numbers work. Just when SBLs thought they couldn’t absorb any more professional responsibility COVID added a whole new layer.

Help is available in various forms, not least through regional SBM networking groups. These groups continue to work hard to provide information and guidance and are an invaluable support mechanism for practitioners. For example, School Business Services (SBS) has a long-established, facilitated SBL group which encourages the sharing of information, support and advice. Groups like this, often led by organisations that understand the pressures SBLs face, are absolutely crucial. Their value is not just in the exchange of information and experiences, but also in the peer support they provide.

On a more practical level, organisations can provide assistance to SBLs with operational tasks and routines, such as financial planning and statutory returns, delivering these on the school’s behalf or acting as a second pair of eyes. This support can play a valuable ‘critical friend’ type role, especially if the SBL is the lone business professional in their school.

As well as seeking external support, there is much that SBLs can do to address the pressures they face. Identifying the issue, acknowledging the problem, and then taking practical steps to carve out some form of a work life balance should be part of their strategy, and there is a useful, three-step approach to analysing and addressing the pressures SBLs now face.

Step 1 – Survival: for all school leaders, portraying resilience and control is part of the culture, but it’s not a sign of weakness to let down your guard and admit that you’ve reached capacity. Recognising and acknowledging your own limitations shows strength and good leadership. If you’ve reached that point, acknowledge it, and try to factor in time away from the desk to focus and realign priorities.

Step 2 – Acceptance: taking positive steps to address the issue and make changes that will have a positive impact. It can take time to reorganise routines; however, it is important that this is seen as an opportunity. Seek out ‘quick wins’, focus on elements you can control and relinquish those areas you don’t have any control over.

Looked at individually these first two small steps can seem insignificant, but they can lay the foundations for a more concerted drive for change that can make a huge difference.

Stage 3 – Growth: regaining both confidence and control can promote a more positive mindset. Introducing small changes allows for a greater focus on building a longer-term vision for new and improved ways of working.

  • Working habits: COVID has changed working patterns for us all. It could be time to consider how you can make some of these changes – such as some home-based working – a permanent feature within the working week to help reduce pressure on you and your colleagues.
  • Professional networks: necessity has led to innovative ways of connecting up. Virtual SBL meetings, online discussion forums and social media channels, such as Twitter, all provide the opportunity to share ideas and good practice, and encourage positive peer support. These networks can also facilitate professional coaching connections, which many SBLs have taken advantage of and feedback positively about. 
  • CPD: ensuring professional skills and competencies are fit-for-purpose and can support your new direction. Make time to explore what interests you and can help you to grow. School Business Services offer a range of training sessions from MIS to finance functions.
  • Downtime: 24/7 working is not sustainable – commit to not being the last out of the car park each evening and try to leave your work in the office. Focus on what you have achieved rather than what’s still on the to-do list.

Small steps can make a big difference, says Val Andrew.

Make tech work for you – turn off email and messaging notifications, unsubscribe from unwanted emails and remove work email from your personal ‘phone. If you need to work from home, try to limit this to set periods during the week. Take a positive approach to social media, too, as it can provide an opportunity to connect with other SBLs and realise you are not alone.

Forget multi-tasking – ‘single-tasking’ will help you concentrate on becoming more productive.

Make new routines – plan time away from the desk to get exercise and fresh air. Get into the routine of giving yourself ‘me time’ to help clear your mind.

Learn to delegate – just because you are responsible doesn’t mean you have to action everything.

Abandon the ‘open door” policy’ – at least for set periods during the day so that you can focus on single-tasking.

Val Andrew is an advisor at School Business Services (SBS), a specialist provider of budgeting, finance, MIS and ICT services to schools, and an ISBL Fellow. Leyla Tovey is head of professional services at SBS. www.schoolbusinessservices.co.uk

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