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School Business Leadership in Crisis?

A few weeks ago, NAHT published a report entitled School Business Leadership in Crisis, (click the link to read the report in full) which found that

School business leadership is on the edge – with urgent and coordinated action required to ensure sufficient school business leaders for now and in the future.

The report didn't get the attention is deserved in the education press or in the wider sector, which is exactly, and sadly, the point. The School Business Leadership profession is not given the attention it deserves and its voice is rarely heard. But I have a loud voice and I care very deeply about my profession and our role in the betterment of the education system, so I am not prepared to let such an important and critical issue sink without trace. here are my thoughts on the report's findings:

No Surprises

As I opened the final draft of the NAHT’s report ‘School Business Leadership in Crisis’, I realised I already knew what it would say. I could guess the headlines, estimate many of the percentages and recite the reasons behind the outcomes, in my sleep. The report contains some shocking statistics about the state of the school business leadership profession. Shocking to anyone who isn’t a School Business Leader, that is. The report is not about the competency of those in the role, nor about the management of school and academy finances, or any other spin on the latest government drive to send consultants into our schools at our own expense.

No, this report is about people - the kind of people who rarely make a fuss and who rarely make headlines, who frequently aren’t recognised as school leaders, but who hold the safety, financial security and strategic direction of our school system in their hands. People who quietly fix, resolve, and enable, and people who are now desperately trying to be heard.

What We Are Not

School business leaders are ‘not’ many things. They are not habitually included in discussions and communications about school leadership. They are not qualified teachers and are frequently excluded from education debates because of this. They are not represented adequately in events and conferences arranged by education-based organisations. They are not addressed directly by the DfE as a profession. Details about their role, salary, conditions of employment, performance, qualifications are not held anywhere centrally, by anyone. It is a profession with no structure, no formal governance and no clear agenda. The role doesn’t even exist in the annual workforce census that every school in the country must complete. Instead the post of ‘bursar’ is the only available option - an archaic term that fails to represent the key strategic and vital role that Schools Business Leaders and Professionals carry out.

The Covid Effect

The last two years have been tough by anyone's standards. Every one of us has experienced the awfulness of living in a pandemic. As educators and school workers we have all been at the frontline of the fight to keep the education system running in new and diverse ways. We have all felt the fear of infection, or losing loved ones, and of being asked to put our own personal safety and health at risk in ways for which we never signed up. And whilst School Business Leaders are no different to anyone else in this regard, what we have had to find our way through (operating remote and onsite-schools, risk assessments, ever-changing guidance, initiating and operating testing regimes, vaccination programmes etc, has led to an enormous increase in workload, because none of the other stuff that we already have to do, has stopped.

And after 2 years of running on adrenaline and passion, reserves are fully depleted and School Business Leaders, alongside their leadership colleagues, are finally having to put themselves first, as their bodies and minds start to falter under the continuous strain that they have been under. Professionals who I know and admire, operating at the very top of their professional game, have now had enough. They have given all they have to give, and more, and the passion, the dedication, the drive, to get up in the morning and make a difference, is no longer there. Instead we have exhaustion, fatigue, stress and no sign of anything changing any time soon.

Lack of Structural Support

In times of extreme pressure, we habitually usually fall back on our established structures and procedures to see us though. Guidelines and professional expectations come into play, and people work within the confines and the remit of their roles. We cling to structures and rules.

Which is all very well, unless those structures and rules don’t exist in your profession. There are no agreed professional guidelines for SBLs. There is no pay structure, no list of duties, no standard operating rules or pay and conditions document. There is no statutory pay review body, no effective professional body and no clear job role definition. There is not even a clear ruling on whether SBLs are members of a school’s senior leadership team or not. In short, a school can make up the rules for its SBL however it wants.

Throw in a pandemic, and you have the makings of a perfect storm. That storm has now hit. Full force 4 in the face, knocking people sideways with a force no one was really expecting, with very little to hang onto. And School Business Leaders are questioning how much longer they can hold on, and even why they are trying to.

And honestly? It breaks my heart. You will rarely, if ever, see a School Business Leader publicly struggling, but behind the scenes, in social media private messages, phone calls and private texts, tears of frustration, anger, exhaustion and loss have been flowing. Stress is now embedded into our working practice. Dread and worry are part of our waking moments. Exhaustion is routine and accepted.

Action is Required

So it is no surprise at all that our profession is no longer something we would recommend for others. It is sad but understandable that those who can bring forward their retirement plans, are doing so. It is hugely worrying that there is no pipeline strategy for recruiting new School Business Leaders into the profession, together with no strategy with which to retain or fairly remunerate those we currently have.

I am so grateful to NAHT for conducting and compiling this report. If nothing else, it is a huge comfort that they care for us and are calling for change on behalf of our profession. The issues raised affect not just the SBL profession, but wider school leadership and the further safe provision of our education system.

I wholeheartedly support both the findings and the recommendations of the report and truly hope that every school leader, every trade union, every professional body and most importantly, the DfE read it, hear it, and take action to protect and preserve a body of professionals who are calling out for support, for once, after giving it, unstintingly for so long.

Thank you

Footnote: All extracts are from the NAHT's Report "School business leadership in crisis? Making school business leadership sustainable" .

The campaign and report can be read in full here


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