The business function of a school or college is critical to its success, regardless of student age range or overall size. Defining what this function actually is and what characterises doing it really well is tricky. The first problem underscores the significant and increasing diversity in working context. The second is the elixir of success. What exactly are the key ingredients?
I have felt a hesitancy in some school leaders to fully embrace ‘business’ within an educational context. After all, we do not manufacture or sell a product, nor do we operate profit and loss accounts; we teach our nation’s children. However there are key drivers for us all. We are of course driven by funding, however unfair the allocations may be. Whether it is public or private money being spent, our customers deserve value for money. This leads me to two questions. How does this value show itself and how do we achieve it?
Any parent, teacher or leader in education has a clear sense of what a good quality, high value education feels like, and it is fine that we cannot necessarily measure it accurately or put a clear price on it. We are all in the business of supporting young people to enable them to better their lives, and maybe our own, and contribute to improving humanity, either within our shores or beyond.
The second question – how do we achieve value – demands the presence of some very special people, our school business leaders. Their role is increasingly important and must be embraced by school leadership teams and governors, whatever the structure or working context.
Recently, at an Inside Government’s School Management forum I was fortunate to meet a range of these extraordinary professionals. The richness of their views and varying nature of their contributions to young people’s lives was staggering. They were overwhelmingly committed to improving the lives of the children within their organisation, keen to ensure their work continues to support and positively impact on each child’s experience of education. However, worryingly, it felt to me that some of the leaders who should be supporting and benefitting from their input had maybe not fully caught on.
Most of us who have worked through school leadership are, essentially, teachers. That is not to say teachers can’t make good administrators or don’t understand the link between business activity and what we are trying to achieve, because many do and some are brilliant at it. But school business leaders see the absolute link between value and efficient, effective operation across the entirety of the school - in terms of what is right for young people. They understand the imperative for a lack of orthodoxy in approach and the need to ask tough questions about everything that costs. Which is of course practically everything.
This need not be stultifying or induce inertia. It can actually liberate and create opportunity. In leading an organisation we should never settle for continuation of anything which could be done better with less money.
It was Stephen Covey who said: “We need to have business leaders who live by deep, strong principles”. A statement of the obvious maybe, however it is the synergy between these principles and the value we want from the system that beats in the heart of the best leaders – whether they have spent the majority of their working lives with young people in classrooms or are part of a wider team of professionals who bring business acumen and understanding.
I think Jack Welch put it really well: “Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion”. Good senior leaders and governors do just the same and embrace business leaders as part of the equation.