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NFER March 2020
NFER March 2020

What’s the value of a primary school business leader?

January 29, 2020, 12:12 GMT+1
Read in 4 minutes
  • All hail the SBL, says Hilary Goldsmith...
What’s the value of a primary school business leader?

The school business leadership profession is pretty inclusive on the whole, with a shared understanding of the pressures and stresses of managing the operations of a complex school acting as a common glue which binds practitioners together.

Wherever you find two or more business leaders together, there will be an instant connection, a never ending stream of things to talk about and mutual to-do list as long as your arm.

But the context and phase of a school can make a huge difference to the perception of the skills, experience and indeed salary expectations of the role itself.

On occasion, the role of the primary school business leader has been viewed as somehow being lesser to that of a colleague working in a secondary school, or a MAT-wide setting.

Indeed, if a comparison were made between the pay scales, budgetary value and line management responsibility of the Primary vs Secondary SBL, then yes, there are very different requirements, but that in no way means that the skills of the primary business leader are any less vital. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Bonsai Budgeting

Of course the numbers are bigger in secondary schools and MATs, but that extra zero means it’s far easier to absorb overspends and unplanned expenditure. In a primary setting, every single transaction needs the closest scrutiny, and every line in the budget relates to an actual cost, rather than a global allocation.

Managing a small budget takes the financial skills of a bonsai gardener, and requires rigour and persistence to manage.

The primary SBL does not have a team of premises, catering, admin and finance staff to get on with managing the day-to-day operations of the school, and so they find themselves spinning a huge amount of plates single-handedly.

In addition, they also need to be able to step back and carry out the strategic aspects of school leadership that are required in every school, regardless of size. It’s an extraordinary balancing act and skill set.

The Whole Caboodle

Every governance, financial, compliance and administrative function that happens in a secondary school also happens in a primary, but there are far less resources and people available to deliver those same services. Which is where the multi-tasking primary SBL comes into their own.

Often based in a busy main office with continual interruption and calls on their time, primary SBLs are in the thick of things at all times, dealing, delegating, deflecting, designing and delivering everything, all of the time, the whole caboodle.

It’s a continual barrage which would test the agility and fitness of many of their secondary and MAT specialist colleagues - it’s no surprise that the SBL steps challenge is usually won by a Primary Business Leader, they never sit down!

Primary Celebration

We are seeing specialist school business roles emerging in our educational landscape, and the school business profession is expanding and regenerating into new forms all of the time.

But while our primary schools retain their unique flavours and the local character that is the essence of their local community, there will always still be a need for the skilled generalist genius of the primary SBL.

So don’t ever be tempted into thinking that working in a primary school is an easy option, it takes the dedication of a marathon runner, the patience of a saint, the skills of a surgeon and the organisation of a circus ringmaster. Let’s celebrate and value all that they do.

Hilary Goldsmith is a school business leadership consultant. Find her at and follow her on Twitter at @sbl365.

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