The Business of Education

10 Oct 2019 | by Sarah Chambers

We’re often told that schools can learn from business. But how…? Having worked in schools and a variety of different businesses, here are some of my observations on what schools can, and maybe can’t, apply so well.

One team

I love this sector, I love the sense of purpose. Many SBL’s encounter disparaging attitudes toward “business” in school, leaving them isolated and sometimes undermined. I’ve also worked with amazing people who want to make a difference in business. Committed staff working as a team achieve the best outcomes whatever the sector. Let’s empower the diverse talents of our people to achieve the best outcomes. No us and them in the staff room. 


SBL’s need a variety of skills and experience. Understanding finance, premises, health and safety, creativity with procurement and resources, knowledge of legislation, people and HR skills, the ability to challenge preconceptions, identify new income streams and tease out savings. Balancing the budget is no easy feat; there is an ever-growing list of regulatory requirements.

Recruiting and retaining the best people, who might otherwise be attracted to the private sector, means proper pay and recognition for the role.  Pay for SBL’s must be comparable to the rest of the SLT, especially if schools are to attract the best candidates. ISBL has worked hard to raise the profile and understanding of the role of the SBP; a recent salary survey by Hilary Goldsmith (here:) also explores some of these issues.

 New ways of working

Digital transformation: new software, remote, flexible working, big data and analytics – helping businesses become more agile, better meet the needs of their staff and reduce costs. Supporting staff with their work-life balance improves engagement and outcomes (evidence here: ). These findings also apply to education. Remote working doesn’t help classroom teachers, but flexibility offers ways to address staff retention.  Look at new, more flexible and effective ways of working and collaborating, such as Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts. It can be hard to quantify the benefits of these, so schools can be slow to adopt. But staff departures and recruitment to replace also have a hidden cost, so it is worth exploring these options.

People… everywhere

Education is uniquely difficult to manage – but is it? I agree, up to a point. The inputs are people – the pupils. The engines are people – the staff. And the outputs are people – children and young adults – so they can’t be processed like widgets. Agreed – it’s difficult to mitigate bad days and dysfunctional families. But wherever you work, it’s the people that make the difference to how successful your operations are. Even in highly automated environments, like automotive, quality varies massively depending on the team and its leaders. Education could do well to recognise that, despite the challenges, it is not unique in this respect.

Fragmentation and change management

In business, it’s unusual that companies fragment. Occasionally large conglomerates divest non-core aspects of their business to enable better synergies and to allow them to focus on their strengths but overall the trend tends to be towards consolidation. We are now seeing re-brokerage in the academies sector, often as a result of finance and governance issues. The human and financial cost of this is not negligible. I would like a more strategic approach for the sector. Is the current school system best placed to deliver an excellent education for all our children, in the most cost-effective way?


These days, data is everywhere. Schools are ranked in league tables, teachers are paid based on children’s outcomes and we measure KPI’s across “comparable” schools. Generally, in business, teams (and individuals) are measured on things they can influence. Is it fair to measure one school or one teacher against another when they may have wildly different intakes, levels of deprivation or additional languages? Managing a team of adults, who are paid and retained based on them doing a good job, is not comparable to teaching children and adolescents. Do we expect to employ the same ratio of staff in a school in an affluent area, to one with a high level of social need? Are they truly comparable?

Education is a public good – an investment in our society – and its benefits accrue over time. Measure our effectiveness – but let’s consider carefully what we measure. KPI’s and data are a start, not an end in themselves. There is also a cost associated with measurement and we must ensure that our reporting activities add value and drive improvement.