The school business leadership profession finds itself emerging from a global pandemic with perhaps a new level of respect from the sector, increased status and greater professional recognition (‘The challenges of school business management during COVID-19’, The Key, September 2020).
At the same time, many school business professionals (SBPs) find themselves at a career crossroads. Factors influencing their next turn and subsequent career journey will vary.
As the Government seeks to expand its academy programme, many maintained SBPs will be contemplating what impact this will have on their existing role. Indeed, those working in single-academy trusts will want to understand what life as part of family of schools (multi-academy trust) might look like. Whilst the future may feel daunting for some, there will be an abundance of new opportunity. Experienced, qualified, high-performing chief operating officers (COOs)/chief financial officers (CFOs) are in high demand and short supply. And whilst the traditional school business manager role is not an exact fit, many of the skills are transferable. I have long advocated for more government investment to develop the existing community of SBPs rather than recruiting from outside the sector.
The apprenticeship levy provides a helpful funded route to senior qualifications, but access needs to be made easier. The Department for Education is funding a small cohort of aspiring CFOs through a bursary scheme to help them undertake the CIPFA Diploma in School Financial and Operational Leadership, and next month, a new CFO pilot mentoring scheme will support a developing cadre of SBPs to become effective and highly competent trust CFOs.
Not everyone is ready to take on a senior executive role, and some simply don’t have that level of ambition. Those providing business support at a local level are still vital to our system.
But let’s not conflate enthusiasm and loyalty with competency. We need to bear in mind that levels of technical proficiency and leadership experience will vary from setting to setting. I’m certainly not suggesting that all schools need to have qualified accountants, certified HR professionals or chartered surveyors on their books. However, what I am saying is that depending on the particular context, there needs to be a certain minimum level of competency. Added to that, there is a return on investment (ROI) argument. For every penny spent on a school business leader, we need to understand the return the school or trust will see. Some of the returns will be identifiable in cash terms, whilst other returns will be less tangible. For example, where the chemistry between the head teacher and the school business leader is such that there is a high level of trust, and indeed the wider school leadership team (SLT) feel able to access unique knowledge, there is a value but not one we can measure in financial terms.
However, in the majority of cases, the extent to which an effective school business professional is helping to optimise the deployment of resources, talent and facilities will be the defining ROI factor.
So, whilst being committed goes a long way, it is not an appropriate proxy for skills, knowledge and experience. It’s important I make clear that I believe there are a variety of SBP roles, with different levels of influence and seniority, but all absolutely critical to our system. I have long referred to three flavours of school business leadership: generalist, specialist and executive. In some circumstance, a combination is appropriate. For example, a COO could be described as an executive generalist, whilst a finance director would be regarded as an executive specialist. Most locally based/single-setting SBPs perform a generalist function even if they have specialist skills. It is rare for a standalone school to have the financial bandwidth to afford the luxury of a specialist. Local generalists in a multi-academy trust (MAT) structure will inevitably have a reporting line into the central team and are therefore likely to enjoy less autonomy than their generalist counterparts in standalone settings. This loss of autonomy can sometimes be hard to adjust to, particularly where a school has moved from being local-authority maintained straight into an existing MAT. It is also evident that local generalists do not command the same salary levels as either SBP specialists or executives working across groups of schools. This pay differential will largely be based on levels of accountability, qualifications and experience.
However regrettable, the legacy approach to running schools is fading.
A head teacher supported by a generalist business manager reporting into a local governing body is a model that is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain, particularly as local authorities struggle to provide the kind of support schools enjoyed prior to the Academies Act 2010. It is hard to see an imminent halt to the current education policy juggernaut, particularly while the Government commands such a significant majority in the House.
Returning to the subject of pay, what is fair? Should pay be based on loyalty, hard work, hours, and length of service, or should pay be based on outputs, technical mastery, leadership track record, and accountability? Whilst I think commitment and enthusiasm should be rewarded, I believe there are limits to the extent to which these alone translate into progression and promotion. A fairer set of measures, particularly when looking through the lens of impact and ROI, might be the three areas of accountability, credentials, and relevant career experience.
We should not wait for the Government to establish a unique SBP pay scale – we’ll be waiting forever. Instead, sector bodies (the Institute for School Business Leadership, the Association of School and College Leaders, NAHT and the National Governance Association) need to coalesce around a set of broad but fair salary ranges based on the variety of roles and the accountability, experience, and qualifications associated to a particular function.
We perhaps need to cast our minds back to the mid 2000s and the heyday of the National College and the school business manager programmes. SBPs, myself included, were led to believe that a National College qualification would lead to legitimising our participation as equal members of our respective SLTs. I don’t recall there being a distinction made between those qualified to NVQ level 4 or those who completed postgraduate-level programmes. Everyone was encouraged to be welcome as credible school leaders ready to participate in strategic discussions. The problem came when participation on the SLT led some SBPs to believe they would enjoy leadership parity and associated pay.
We didn’t, as a system, go far enough in explaining and qualifying what participation on the SLT really meant. An aspiring school business leader in their first role as a school business manager (often coming through the ranks of office manager or finance lead) who undertook a National College qualification was sent back to their school with a message that they were now able to make a claim for a seat at SLT meetings but then also made the leap that inclusion in these meetings meant there was a legitimate claim for a salary in line with other SLT members. This is perhaps where we started to lose our way in the debate over SBP pay. Of course, I would agree that a school business leader who has continued on a professional development journey, has achieved a set of credentials that have parity with the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) and perhaps even the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH), and is making an equal strategic contribution should be paid in line with their pedagogical counterparts.
It’s much harder to make the case if your only relevant qualification is at NVQ level 4. As loyal, committed and enthusiastic as you might be, it’s hard to justify parity with colleagues who have spent three to five years achieving their professional status at degree and postgraduate level and will additionally have years of middle management experience in education.
So, to summarise, leadership parity, pay parity and professional recognition are all legitimate claims, but for the claim to stick, we need to demonstrate parity of qualifications, experience and accountability.
Although there are things outside of our control, there are plenty of things we can do to secure our careers and further cement the role of the SBP or the key leadership function in our system.
What can the Institute for School Business Leadership (ISBL) do?
- Create and oversee sector-recognised professional standards
- Develop clearly defined career pathways and associated qualifications
- Work with providers to develop a portfolio of qualifications and training that responds the needs of practitioners and the evolving system
- Offer a range of resources and tools including guidance, case studies, research, workshops, events and access to professional networks
- Help improve diversity and access to professional opportunity
- Commission sector-led research
- Act as a conduit between policy and practice
What can the unions do?
- Make the case for better terms and conditions
- Work with ISBL to understand the correlation between SBP pay and qualifications and experience
- Encourage other stakeholder groups (CEOs, heads, governors and trustees) to recognise the professional value of the SBP
- Support practitioners in the areas of wellbeing
- Campaign on equality, diversity and inclusion
What can regional groups and networks do?
- Create a local professional community/support network
- Share experiences (good and bad)
- Share knowledge
- Share innovation
- Signpost to national initiatives, programmes, guidance and policy
- Help members see what’s coming
What can you do?
- Commit to a journey of continuous self-improvement
- Develop professional self-confidence
- Map your career journey – know where you would like to end up
- Scan the horizon – understand what the future of education provision looks like in your area, in your trust, in your schools
Stephen Morales, CEO, Institute of School Business Leadership