A school business leader’s cry for help

I read two things yesterday that both moved me to respond to them – but they contained such different views that the only place I could start was Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and it’s famous opening lines:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…
There really are few words better suited as a response to two different documents I read yesterday and I’ll tell you why.

THE BEST OF TIMES…

The first was ISBL CEO Stephen Morales’ positive review of 2017 – a positive romp through what’s good about school business leadership at present. The second was an anguished email from a school business leader which I have uploaded below. Taken together, they show how we are working in the the best of times and the worst of times for the school business management profession.
I smiled as read Stephen’s celebration of what the school business management profession has acheived and the part he and the the ISBL have played in making that happen.

The DfE have put the profession front and centre. They have a created a dedicated SBM team encouraging regional networks, they have looked directly to ISBL and in some cases individual practitioners to support their work on procurement, financial health and efficiency and to help them respond to concerns raised in the NAO report on School Financial Sustainability.

The DfE’s Funding Policy Unit has also welcomed ISBL’s contribution to the National Funding Formula debate. Indeed, ISBL’s NFF technical working group conducted a forensic analysis of the cost of running a school. The findings received serious ministerial traction and we believe heavily influenced the government’s minimum funding pledge announced this autumn.

He catalogues the achievements of the profession and cites the growing number of practitioners and allied professionals involved in driving up standards: School Business Management advocates, senior school business leaders and technical experts, those engaged in social media, projecting the SBL voice far and wide, members of the various DfE technical group, the trustees and staff of the ISBL, regional group leaders and their committee members and thousands of individuals engaged in CPD to improve their skills.

THE WORST OF TIMES…

But there is still much to do – the second document I read yesterday looks at the landscape from a different perspective. It is an anguished cry from a senior member of the profession whom I have known for a number of years and my heart went out to him/her as I read it.
It sums up some of the challenges school business professionals in England are facing. I thought it was worth publishing (with permission) here to give a voice to those who feel they are being mistreated, sidelined or expected to tolerate poor practice.

Dear Matthew

Congratulations on the award.  It is genuinely well deserved.  I think that the new direction and energy created by the move to ISBL can only be good for the profession and for the sector.

However, I feel it may be too late for some of us.  My recent experience, and finding that similar is happening to others in the sector, is that I am seriously considering opportunities in other directions.

With the advent of academies, and their growth to MATs, and the reducing support provided by Local Authorities due to their own budget pressures, I have witnessed a rise in the autonomous power held by individuals who are not equipped to hold such responsibilities.

These CEOs, Principals, Executive Heads, or simply headteachers, act in an increasingly isolated power position, with very little direct accountability.  Governors, Trustees, Directors or members have not, in these cases, developed to understand their new responsibilities, leaving then to be led by the Head, as was the case in the halcyon days of LMS.

The School Business Manager is under increasing pressure to firstly, run the school, secondly, do the Head’s budding, thirdly, provide strategic advice to both the Head and Board, fourthly, provide answers for lack of funding and additionally, do this with reducing resources in their own areas.

If the SBM becomes tired, over-run, frustrated, overwhelmed, or due to the pressures, misses on some detail, they are swiftly blamed and their professionalism and capability challenged in a very open manner. 

I am dealing with three such cases currently, trying to help three SBMs who are facing criticism and potential disciplinary due to them being unable to operate without proper resources and support.  The situation is hidden due to many situations being settled by a compromise agreement.  However, with this, the fault of the leadership is wiped clean, leaving the former SBM to pick up the pieces of their career.  Like I mentioned, I’m currently helping SBMs in this situation, and have seen it happen many times before.  I see this as the greatest problem in the sector.

Until Heads and Boards understand the real pressures and roles of the SBM, they will continue to blame and act as unaccountable executives in their own world of increasing power.

I find myself increasing being called into academies that do not understand their issues, yet have a cavalier attitude towards the business responsibilities.  I simply can’t fix what “they” don’t want to be fixed.  I have witnessed cover-ups, creation of evidence, lying to (or misleading) ESFA inspectors, blaming of others, wasting of public money on expensive travel and accommodation, expenses to cover frequent entertainment, iPhones, iPads, and engaging friends as consultants.  This is all with the knowledge and support of individual members of the Board, therefore there is no genuine accountability or integrity.  Indeed, there appears to be an increasing air of self-protection created around the Head and Board with total disregard to any other parties, including the SBMs and those tasked with ensuring some organisational integrity.

My recent personal experience resulted in me being taken to hospital by ambulance as a direct result of having to work in such an environment and culture.  […] The contract is over, fortunately, but it was not left in a tidy or finished state as I had not had the resources, leadership or guidance to be able to do so.  They will now have to continue with their fifth FD in two years.

What started off as congratulations to you has turned into a bit of a rant highlighting a flaw in the sector.  I think there are a lot of good and positive examples, however, my experience is that I only see those in need of help.  I can only help those that genuinely want help and that is becoming an increasingly rare and challenging situation.  After ten years working as an interim, twenty years in education and nearly thirty years safeguarding the proper use of public money, I may have reached a point where I have done what I can to help schools do similar with integrity.

My congratulations to you is genuine.  I hope that the positive intentions of ISBL will spread throughout the sector and I wish us all well in that venture.

Thanks for listening!

My best and kindest regards.

[Name removed]

That was a tough email for me to read. My heart goes out to any practitioner who has experienced this. I am fortunate that my current employer couldn’t be more different but it is a tale I am familiar with from my advocacy work up and down the country. It is not an isolated story.

I remain steadfast in my resolve to support practitioners experiencing this kind of tension by reinforcing the importance of gathering all school business professionals under the double protection of their professional institute, twinned with high quality trade union support from ASCL and the NAHT. There is professional strength in numbers.

The email and Stephen’s reflection are both valid commentaries on the state of the profession. As we head into 2018, I pray there will be fewer instances of poor practice and mistreatment of SBLs and more of the positive examples cited by Morales coming to the fore.

 

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