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How to Keep Great School Business Leaders

January 8, 2019, 15:20 GMT+1
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  • Stephen Morales considers the complexities and challenges of strategic school leadership in a febrile political climate amid ongoing reform...
How to Keep Great School Business Leaders

The government’s policy trajectory since 2010 has left our education system fragmented. The sector is only partially reformed, and subsequently we have two distinct education delivery models operating in England and Wales, with academy and maintained schools running in parallel.

We should remember that the majority of schools (circa 18,000) remain under LA control. For some, this can present new opportunities for development, but it can also be confusing and daunting for school business leaders moving between maintained and academy schools – sometimes out of choice, and sometimes not. What’s expected of SBLs in a maintained school setting is often very different to the expectations of a trust.

The meaning of ‘executives’

At this point, it might be worth defining the different flavours of leadership we’ve seen start to emerge, beginning with ‘executives’. This is a person, or group of persons, that has administrative, operational and supervisory authority within an organisation, or the power to put plans or actions into effect.

Executives will generally perform the following functions:

  • Represent the organisation and effectively be its public face in dealings with external stakeholders
  • Be accountable and responsible for the organisation’s operations, and accept responsibility for its overall performance
  • Make strategic decisions in relation to new markets, products and making acquisitions
  • Manage the organisation by allocating and monitoring its resources, and facilitate collaboration by developing and engaging people to get the best return on investment from those resources
  • Lead by championing new directions – either on a large scale with a new vision, or on a small scale with minor new ideas

It’s also important to understand the difference between an executive and a generalist. Executive leaders have people who follow them, while generalist managers have people who work for them. To be successful, organisations will need both strong leaders and strong managers to get their teams on board and follow the leader’s vision of success.

Leaders paint a picture of what they see as possible. Their job is to inspire and engage their teams by turning a vision into reality. They think beyond individual contributions, encouraging people to instead think of themselves as part of something bigger. They know that high-functioning teams can accomplish a lot more working together, compared with individuals working autonomously.

Managers will tend to focus on setting, measuring and achieving specific goals. Their job is control their situations in a way that will enable those objectives to be reached or exceeded.

The meaning of ‘specialists’

A separate group, ‘specialists’, possess unique technocratic knowledge, typically acquired through rigorous programmes of study. However, the pace of reform in recent years has left a skills and knowledge gap across the three pillars of school leadership – pedagogy, governance and business – as headteachers assume CEO positions, governors become company directors, and SBPs increasingly move into executive roles or take on specialist functions previously provided or supported by LAs.

The Institute of School Business Leadership has responded to this challenge of developing our leaders, while keeping pace with the reforms, by developing a tiered membership that tracks individual CPD and offers a career pathway from entry into the profession through to Fellowship and executive leadership. It’s developed specialist qualifications in collaboration with other chartered institutes and offered funded qualifications through apprenticeships.

It’s also devised academic programmes alongside partner universities, providing workshops and short courses on relevant subjects such as curriculum-led financial planning and occupational safety and health, and nurtured excellent relationships with local networks and regional groups.

Finally, it’s promoted the concept of ‘joined-up leadership’ by working collaboratively with headteacher and governor associations in areas such as curriculum development, schools’ financial health and efficiency, funding policy and governance.

Many flavours

The opportunities currently available for SBLs to progress and diversify are enormous, but not without committing to CPD. The reforms therefore represent an element of risk, as trusts seek to rationalise their leadership and management functions and start to explore what efficiency savings can be made through centralisation.

I would, however, caution both the government and the sector at large against removing the local business support offered to headteachers in particular, as this will result in pedagogical leadership being diverted away from the core business of teaching and learning.

Where SBLs are concerned, they may be able to follow new career pathways, but the value and importance of local practitioners shouldn’t be underestimated – not just in standalone schools, but also in trusts.

We need to accept that ‘school business leadership’ isn’t a single discipline, nor does it represent one level within a school’s or trust’s organisation. As we’ve explored here, it exists in many flavours – and ISBL is here to support the diverse spectrum of practice.

Stephen Morales is chief executive of the Institute of School Business Leadership.

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