Braced for change

25 January 2016

Leader logoAs academisation continues and with it the devolution of more responsibility to schools and leaders, it is becoming accepted that the school business manager (SBM) has a key role to play in leadership. Heads and principals, even those with sophisticated business acumen, find that juggling their additional responsibilities as a CEO can distract from their core purpose of driving improvement in attainment.

Key facets of the SBM role include harnessing business and entrepreneurial expertise to manage dwindling resources; leading increasing numbers of support staff; maximising income generation; and that overriding commitment to the core purpose of every school – ensuring the children have every opportunity to achieve their full potential.

More specialisation
As the number of multi-academy trusts (MATs) and federations has increased we have seen more specialisation within the SBM role, while the more holistic and generalist role is still prevalent in stand-alone, individual schools. The ASCL blueprint predicts that fiscal pressures will bring about the demise of smaller stand-alone institutions and that they will be absorbed into MATs, federations or other collaborations.

Executive leadership models continue to emerge with many incorporating a mix of academic and business-related professional expertise. At the Academies Show in November 2015, there was a suggestion that the most efficient model for groups (in financial terms) would be those incorporating 15 or more schools. In groups of this size, is it possible that the balance of the leadership team could become skewed so that more commercially trained professionals whose expertise is in accounting, HR, marketing, data analysis, legal compliance and so on outnumber the educators?

I believe that some schools – providing that they can continue to operate in a sustainable way and retain their autonomy – may continue to thrive as individual institutions. They will be a minority but the generalist model of SBM could continue in these settings.

However, I also believe that there is a place for generalist SBM roles in MATs and federations. Some think this would only be at operational rather than strategic level but my view is that you would still need specialists working at operational level: leadership needs strategists who can think innovatively but also connect with the issues on the ground to deliver solutions that work.

Streamline structures
One immediate effect of collaboration is the need to streamline leadership structures that can help cut costs quickly. The challenge is then to ensure that the new leadership model includes high-calibre, innovative and strategic leaders with expertise in both educational and business disciplines.

Changes of this kind naturally make us feel uneasy about what the future holds but I believe there will be more career development opportunities for business leadership and management practitioners. There will be openings for those with ambition who are also prepared to take advantage of gaining experiences in different environments.

For the time being the mix of specialist and generalist roles in the system will continue. Rather than looking at this as a positive or negative, the balance of strategic and operational responsibilities is the key distinction. There is no ‘alone-size-fits-all’ model.

In the spirit of the ASCL blueprint and the vision of a school-led, self-improving system, it is for practitioners to seize this opportunity and develop our own clear sense of where we want this profession to go and what we are seeking to achieve and to play an active role in shaping the future. ASCL’s change in terminology to school business leader is intended to underline that the role is an integral part of the leadership structure.

There are still some pockets of resistance to the ongoing evolution of this role, where there is reluctance to recognise that qualified professionals who do not have a teaching background should be part of a senior leadership team. ASCL has been lobbying for the government to acknowledge the value of the SBM role to our system and to support the removal of those barriers that still prevent total inclusion at leadership level in some parts of the sector.

To read my more detailed think-piece on this topic go to:

ASCL’s Conference for Business Leaders 9 June, Birmingham
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Business Leaders Service
ASCL Professional Development can provide wide-ranging support delivered by experienced business management professionals to help schools and colleges evaluate their existing business management provision. For more information email

Val Andrew is ASCL Business Leadership Specialist