When I first became a SBM – and indeed, before that a bursar – it was considered almost ungodly to utter the terms ‘business’ and ‘finance’ in the same breath as ‘education’.
However, because of the austerity measures imposed by the current government, school leaders are now more aware than ever before of the cost of education and the importance of getting value for money when delivering pupil outcomes.
To a certain degree, this has made the jobs of SBLs managing school finances a little easier. No longer are we considered to be solely negative when uttering the words ‘Sorry, not in the budget’ or ‘No, we can’t afford it’. It’s now a whole school responsibility to spend and manage wisely within the confines of our ever decreasing budgets.
However, that doesn’t mean that your SLT will automatically make the right decisions when introducing a new initiative, or even maintaining an existing one. As professionals, how do we ensure that we’re able to offer advice and guidance in the knowledge that we’ll be listened to, and that credence will be given to our advice and support?
Speculate to accumulate
Those of you who have read my previous PSM articles on school finance will know I’m an advocate of inclusion, in that I believe staff should be made aware of restrictions created by our budgetary situations.
Alongside that, there’s a need for all staff to understand not just how we’re funded, but to what extent. Whenever I deliver this sort of training in my schools I’m always surprised by the misconceptions people hold – often due to misinformation through something they’ve heard or read, rather than a lack of understanding.
However, I also feel very strongly that innovation and change in schools shouldn’t be driven solely by financial concerns. That might sound like a strange statement coming from an experienced business manager who ‘deals with the figures,’ but it’s founded in a belief that you have to speculate to accumulate, and that you have to have sound risk management strategies.
My own approach to risk management in school settings is reflected in my desire to cost every element of the school’s operations and encourage a business mentality when making choices. I’m an advocate of using business plans, service level agreements and financial formality in all areas of school life. This isn’t always well received, but it does create an aura of understanding. I’ve found that my colleagues’ work is typically informed by an understanding of the cost implications of any decisions they take.
A key part of all this has been my inclusion in the SLT, which affords me the ability to ‘talk money’ around the key decision makers at the schools I work in. It also gives me a greater knowledge and understanding of the schools’ direction and enables me to offer strategic insights into any issues and developments I can see approaching on the horizon – something that’s very helpful when it comes to financial planning, bid writing and developing long-term solutions.
You’re the professional
At the very core of our responsibility as SBLs is the level of knowledge we hold about the school setting and our ability to share this with senior leaders and governors. What might that look like within the context of the school’s day-to-day activities?
Firstly, we’re all working with public money. As such, everyone involved must understand what this responsibility entails and look to ensure best value within everything they do. All aspects of school life have a financial implication, which is one of the most important points to get across to leaders. There ought to be a transparent approach to all aspects of budget spend, which should include a costed school or academy improvement plan, a whole school approach to purchasing and a common protocol for procuring goods and services.
It’s important to remember that you’re the professional in school charged with delivering sound and directed financial advice and support. A willingness to step forward and conduct difficult conversations around purchasing decisions and strategic direction is an essential part of your role. This isn’t always easy to maintain in every setting, but it’s not impossible!
Belonging to the SLT will put you at the heart of any decision making, and help you gather information that can be drawn on when offering your advice and support. If you’re not a full time member of SLT, offer to attend at the start of their meetings or try to arrange a ‘post-SLT meeting’ the next day. This will give your headteacher or principal an opportunity to share their ideas with you and discuss how affordable they are.
The same could apply to your governors – attending their finance meetings, or even the occasional full governing body meeting, will give you the chance to offer some helpful options and solutions.
I mentioned earlier the role of SBL in relation to other staff. Maintaining a set of procedures that all staff must follow is a great way of attaining knowledge of your school spending in advance. In my schools there’s a ‘finance handbook’ we originally wrote for this very purpose, which sets out a series of nonnegotiables. I also insist on service level agreements, contracts registers and business newsletters, as well as a host of other business tools for monitoring spend and reaffirming responsibilities.
The ‘need to spend’ will often be subject to outside influence – perhaps a reaction to a government initiative, pressure from the media or the instant response to a judgement. Keeping ahead of the game, being aware of what these influences are and their potential impact will mean you’ll always be in a position to give best advice and guidance.
Sign up for government newsletters, take part in consultations, join professional organisations, carry out your own research – these will all provide you with a stronger basis for informed discussion.
What all of this effort will contribute to is ensuring that you, as an SBL, hold all the information you need about your school or academy so that you’re able to have robust conversations around matters of affordability and strategic direction.
SBLs should find themselves placed firmly in the middle of the process, in a position where they’re able to guide, cajole and offer support to colleagues in a way that helps them achieve both best value and value for money.
Sue Birchall is a consultant, speaker, writer, trainer and business manager at The Malling School, Kent.