School Business Management is an amazing profession

This is the recreated text of an off-the-cuff speech given to close the National School Business Management Awards in London last week

Wow! What a wonderful profession school business management is.

It has been wonderful to have so many iterations of the profession here today; from primaries to special schools, academies and secondary schools, foundation and federated schools; business managers from all sides of the profession. And you have all gathered here to celebrate the achievement of our award winners.

But let’s take a moment to celebrate the profession. What a year it has been for us. We have decided that the time for school business management has come. And this year we have stormed the barricades and we have tunnelled under the walls to advance our cause.

At the start of the year, we stormed the barriers by taking school business management to the House of Lords where we called together the great and the good in the world of education to secure their support for our project to publish professional standards for school business managers.

Then we stepped onto the world stage, signing an affiliation agreement with ASBO International [Association of School Business Officials International, based in the USA] and participating in school business management events in the United States and Spain. We have worked formally with our SBM colleagues in Australia and South Africa this year as well as informal links throughout the UK, Europe and beyond.

Through the National Association we have talked together as a profession about what the very best in school business management looks like; what it looks like now and what it should look like in the future. We had over one thousand responses to our consultation about the standards and what they should contain.

We launched those standards at the biggest national conference ever with ringing endorsement from the Department, from the EFA and from sector stakeholders. We stormed the barricades and we planted the standards flag for all to see. But we didn’t stop there, we announced the creation of the National School Business Management Qualifications Board to make sure that there are the training and qualifications needed to support the profession as it continues to grow.

But this year has not all been about grand gestures and high profile projects. We have also tunnelled under the walls to advance our cause. This year, school business managers have converted schools to academies, secured promotion, refurbished school buildings and influenced schools forums. We have  become more qualified and we have spent time support the emotional needs of the pupils and staff in our schools. We do our jobs with a calculator in one hand and a packet of tissues in the other.

We have lobbied and we have influenced; sometimes loudly from the top of the barricades, sometimes quietly with a whisper in an ear – ‘we can’t afford it’ or ‘how about we look at collaborating with so and so to achieve more?’

This year we have stretched our own definition of profession in both directions. We have thrown off the one-size-fits-all term ‘school business manager’ and begun to work on a definition of a profession. That definition now starts with volunteers working part time in the school office and goes right up to the top of the profession.

I’m going to outline that scale for you. Now when I first did this, in the House of Lords back in January, I was laughed at for being too radical. A year on – and I think I might see a few nods of agreement. School Business Management starts with an unpaid volunteer in the school office. It goes on to include working as an administrator or a school secretary. From there, we get promoted to finance officer and bursarial roles before moving on to be school business managers or directors of support services. After that, the profession rises to take on senior finance and operational positions in multi-academy trusts or even within diocesan or local authority structures. At the more senior end of the profession, school business management positions comprise of Directors of Education, COO or even CEO roles. And you all know the name of the most senior school business management professional in the country… her name is Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State. She is in charge of the nation’s education. It is her job to deploy the country’s resources to ensure the best outcomes for pupils. Now, she is not a teacher; so she must be a business manager!

By storming the barricades and tunnelling under the walls of entrenched positions and practice, we have changed the profession forever. The ambition we all share as Fellows and Award Winners is captured in the title of NASBM’s 5 Year Business Plan – ‘No Glass Ceiling’. This year has been about breaking through that glass ceiling.

But that brings responsibility with it. If we are to play a part in leading our schools and shaping outcomes for children, then we must have the courage to face change and to embrace a grow-mind set. Earlier today, Matthew Syed talked about how sports professionals, out of their own comfort zone, no longer exhibit the speed of reaction that kept them at the top of their game. He talked about missing the tennis serve when he felt he should have been able to return it.

Well that applies to us too. The direction of travel in education has been clear from 2010 onwards. The last five years have been like watching slow-motion footage of the sector’s response to government policy. Some schools and business managers have anticipated the direction of travel and prepared for it, some are still looking in the wrong place wondering why they are missing the ball. From my position as Head of Professional Standards at NASBM, it has been my privilege to watch the best of the profession prepare for the academised landscape in which we increasingly find ourselves; people who have gone out an got CIPFA qualified and who have entered into formal collaboration arrangements.

Matthew [Syed] talked of the need to connect the activity to the purpose. Well for us this means answering the question What do we want? Better bureaucracy? When to we want it? Now – said nobody ever!

What do we want?….safe, warm schools…when do we want them?…now! What do we want?…new playgrounds…when do we want them?.. now! What do we want?…teachers paid properly and on time…when do we want that?…now. What do we want?…exciting classrooms and places to learn in..when do we want them? Now!

Do we want the headteacher taking time out to plan playgrounds or reconcile the payroll? No. Do we want the head of learning planning energy procurement across the trust? No!

So what do we want? Better business management! When do we want it? Now!

I want to bring my remarks to a close by picking up on Matthew [Syed’s point] about complexity in the system. This addressed the heated issue of whether you need to be an accountant to be a school business management professional. You don’t and here’s why.

An account working in a school or multi-academy trust will look at a proposal to send 67 pupils on a  theatre trip to see a Shakespeare play at the Globe in London and say “the contributions balance the cost of the trip and the coach doesn’t look expensive” and approve the trip. The school business manager will look at the trip and say “there are 120 pupils in that year group, why are only 67 of them getting to see Shakespeare live?” The school business manager will ask “why not use the money to bring a theatre-in-the-round group into school and let all 120 pupils see the play?” The school business manager will be able to discuss with the Head of English whether this is actually a gifted and talented activity and be able to understand that it is ok to just send 67 pupils out of 120 if the aim is to raise ‘B’ grades to ‘A’s and ‘A’ to ‘A*’. The account would have approved the trip and everyone would have been happy. The school business management professional would have put the needs of the pupils at the heart of the decision.

This has been a great year for school business management. We have well and truly shattered the glass ceiling and become a proper profession. We have extended the definition of school business management to the very top of educational leadership and we have included entry-level practice properly.

As you Fellows go out from here to influence your schools and academy trusts, I urge you to reach for the top and to pursue your ambition and, as you do so, don’t forget to reach out and extend your hand to those who are still learning and to lift their practice as you go.

Thank you for listening