ASCL Business Leadership Specialist Val Andrew considers the changing roles and expectations within leadership in our schools in this special two part blog.
The evolution of the role of school business manager and school business leader is well documented and has been the result of increasing devolution of autonomy to individual school/establishment level over a sustained period since 1988.
ASCL published Leading the Way: Blueprint for a self-improving system earlier this year, which has focused my mind on the future of school business leadership and what this profession might look like in five years’ time and beyond. As part of my preparation for this article, it’s also been useful to canvas opinion from practitioners working in a range of different settings.
Acknowledging the need to professionalise the role, in 2001, the Labour government initiated a project to develop a series of bespoke qualifications providing relevant training for up to 1,000 bursars. The target for this was primarily support staff already working in schools, triggering “a quiet revolution” (Southworth, Geoff, 2010, School Business Manager: A quiet revolution). The interest this generated was unprecedented and described aptly by Charlotte Woods, (Anatomy of a professionalization project – The Making of the Modern School Business Manager, 2014) as, “a systematic attempt by the government in England to place on a firm professional footing a poorly understood but increasingly influential member of the school community: the site based school business manager (SBM)”.
Levels of devolution have continued with academisation and it’s become obvious there is an overwhelming need to support school leaders from a purely academic background with the range of additional responsibilities they face in taking the helm of what have become small, medium, large and huge corporate entities. Even heads and principals with a high level of business acumen find the challenge of juggling their additional responsibilities as CEO can distract from their core purpose – teaching and learning outcomes.
Greater autonomy brings increasing diversity
The relentless drive by government for greater autonomy within the system has brought an increasing diversity to the role, with wider recognition that the business function within an educational setting is essential to its success. Notwithstanding the core purpose of every school – ensuring children have the opportunity to achieve their potential – key facets of the role include harnessing more ‘entrepreneurial’ expertise to manage dwindling resources, taking responsibility for leading increasing numbers of support or associate staff and maximising income generation to support pressured budgets.
The professionalisation of the role in recent years has not been without hurdles. It has been argued that subsequent governments have failed to appreciate the implications for school business leadership in their quest to delegate greater autonomy. There remain pockets of cultural resistance where there is a reluctance to recognise that qualified professionals who do not have a teaching background should be integrated within educational leadership. Most recent research has concentrated on aspects of teaching and learning, failing to acknowledge the essential contribution of the business function within the system and, possibly as a result of the latest global economic crisis, there is a widely held suspicion of everything associated with business, tainting opinions about a role which features the word ‘business’ in its title.
Are we business experts?
One colleague told me: “I have very little ‘business’ experience, but I have 30 years of leadership and management experience. I have had no difficulty making the transition into the education sector because of my experience.”
I lean towards the concept that as our focus is primarily on budgets, HR and estates management it’s inevitable that we will continue to be referred to holistically as the business leaders, with the equivalent level of ‘corporate’ responsibility as a COO (Chief Operating Officer) in the commercial world. That said, our strengths are in the leadership and management experience we contribute in seeking to achieve greater efficiencies for schools as opposed to turning them into commercial operations in the traditional and wider context of business.
As the landscape of our system continues to change with increasing numbers of multi academy trusts (MATs) and other alliances of schools, a greater degree of specialisation is emerging within this profession. Conversely, within smaller, individual standalone schools, the wider range of business leadership and management responsibilities continue to be delivered within the context of one more generalist role.
The questions are ‘how will the provision of the business leadership and management function evolve further into the future, and what are the implications for practitioners?
Val’s blog will consider these questions and the evolution of business leadership in schools in part two of her blog, available here.