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School Business Leaders – Planning Your Next Career Move

January 8, 2019, 15:04 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Hayley Dunn looks at how SBLs’ varied career backgrounds and rich skillsets give them a wide choice of options when planning their next career move...
School Business Leaders – Planning Your Next Career Move

Traditionally, the majority of those holding SLT posts will have followed similar career pathways – from teacher to subject or department lead, through to assistant head, deputy head and potentially headship. For the most ambitious, the next step might be an executive headship spanning multiple schools, or a CEO role.

SBLs tend to be unique among SLT members in that their career backgrounds and skills can be highly diverse. There’s no clear single pathway for business leadership careers, which means that an SBL career can be entered via many different routes.

Ask any SBL about the path that led to their current position and you’ll get an array of answers that can take in everything from LAs and the commercial sector to operations, banking, project management and the military.

You’ll likely uncover a range of diverse, experience-rich backgrounds from which they’ll have picked up a plethora of skills. The common thread is that these routes all require learning transferable skills in key areas such as finance, HR, marketing, site management and leadership, sometimes with no prior experience of the education sector.

However, you may also meet some who have come up through one of two education-based routes – education professionals previously based inside or outside the classroom before opting for a career change, or others who might have started their careers via a graduate scheme.

The qualifications held by SBLs can also vary hugely, spanning finance (like AAT, ACCA, CIMA, CIPFA) and project management (such as PRINCE2) – and that’s before you even get to the degrees, MBAs and various school business management qualifications.

Context sensitive

The upshot of so much variation is that business leaders will need CPD that’s appropriately varied and personalised if they’re to fill the gaps in their knowledge and build the skills they’ll require for roles they might aspire to in future. Beyond school business leader, those future roles might include chief finance officer, academy business manager, chief operating officer and CEO – all of which will naturally require a thorough understanding of the different entities now existing within the education sector (maintained schools, MATs, free schools, etc).

One question I often encounter is ‘What must I do or learn to move from being an SBM in a primary school to a secondary? How different is it?’ The answer to that will depend on the scope and responsibility of said current role compared to the new one. As well as understanding the specific context and demographic of the new organisation, ensure you’re aware of the priorities and challenges you’ll be expected to deliver on.

There’s no ‘one size fits all’ career route for aspiring business leaders – but the best will always seek out feedback and aim to continually improve their practice. Since the ethos of an organisation tends to be set by the person at the top, searching out opportunities for working, and potentially volunteering, in different organisations will do much to enhance your experience and vividly illustrate how there are many different ways to proceed when it comes to leading and managing people.

Knowledge to application

Take my own career progression, for example. With every step I’ve taken I’ve always sought to ‘add something’. My understanding of finance comes from my previous experience of accounting clerk and officer roles within the private sector, before I moved to the public sector. Every role I’ve held has broadened my knowledge of finance and accountancy, while also giving me a range of other skills and experiences, supplemented by professional study and other CPD activities.

The purpose of undertaking qualifications is to gain new relevant knowledge and external recognition of professional competencies. School business professionals have the choice of either undertaking an industry-specific qualification, such as the Level 4 Diploma in School Business Management, or specific skill qualifications such as those available from the Association of Accounting Technicians. The best course will depend on what qualifications you already possess, the current direction of your professional development, your organisation’s needs and your own future aspirations.

That said, quality mind-stretching experiences are just as important as completing qualifications. Studying might give you the knowledge, but it’s your workplace that will provide opportunities for applying that knowledge. Personally, I’ve always gained a better understanding of different processes from putting them into practice and seeing them through from start to finish.

Qualified and experienced

There’s also the need to keep up with changes in policy and statute. In the latest version of the ESFA’s Academies Financial Handbook, for example (see, there’s a new statement relevant to finance staff employed by MATs: “The trust’s finance staff must be appropriately qualified and/ or experienced. Trusts should assess whether the CFO, and others holding key financial posts, should have a business or accountancy qualification and hold membership of a relevant professional body, dependent on the risk, scale and complexity of financial operations.”

It’s vitally important that a trust’s most senior staff – particularly those with statutory responsibilities – are adequately qualified and experienced in carrying out the complex processes and reporting requirements their roles entail. Moving from a finance role in a maintained school to a MAT equivalent, for instance, will involve taking on a significantly different workload that encompasses complex financial tasks, such as VAT 126 returns, budget forecasting returns and statutory financial statements.

What we need in the sector is to retain, develop and invest in reflective, high performing practitioners who are committed to furthering their professional development. Successful schools are full of amazing staff – not least the school business professional, who should be influencing a school’s recruitment and retention strategies, succession planning, career planning and cover for any unexpected absences among senior leadership. In future, we may be able to utilise analytical insights and harness technology to manage risk, inform our strategic plans and boost our own professional development. With the sharing of excellence and best practice, school business professionals can design and plan their own path.

Items for the CV

Ambitious school business professionals keen to add value and broaden their understanding should consider building the following into their career plans…

  • Attend selected conferences with the aim of participating in the most relevant talks and workshops, while meeting and making new connections
  • Read widely, including books, professional blogs, industry publications and research papers
  • Build a social media profile and use it to actively engage with other leaders
  • Volunteer as a governor or trustee at a school or a charity – you can learn much from seeing how other organisations are led and governed
  • Find somwhere to showcase your expertise locally or nationally, be it via blogging, writing articles, public speaking engagements, working groups or conference panels
  • Join or create a peer network – government guidance on doing this can be found via here
  • Attend coaching and mentoring programmes; the Women Leading in Education coaching programme, for example, is free for female SBPs – see here for more details

Hayley Dunn is a MAT finance director; her book, The School Business Manager’s Handbook, is available now, published by John Catt.

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