One small voice

You may have gathered yesterday that I was very excited to have attended the SBM Roundtable event in Camelot (sorry Birmingham – I can’t suppress the fantasy/fiction/ myth lover in me). However, in the cold light of a new morning, after my brain has had chance to sort out and reflect on all the information stored, my emotion changes from ‘excited’ to ‘inspired’ to ‘did-I-really-tell-the-CEO-of-NASBM-what-was-wrong-with-the-funding-formula-like-he-didn’t-already-know?” and lastly to a typical SBM response of ‘so let’s get on and do something’.

I make no apologies that yesterday’s blog was an ebullient telling of what was discussed at the event. Thankfully, @shropshiresbm then posted something much more coherent and professional for everyone, containing suitable links to further reading (I have a lot to learn). SBMRT17

It is clear to me that the message to come out of yesterday is that we need a metaphorical ‘call to arms’ of school leaders across the nation. We need the professional bodies, the protest groups, Headteachers and SBMs to unite in one voice behind the one and only issue.


We need to stop allowing the message to be diluted with diversionary tactics by just (in accepted political fashion) ignoring them totally, and we need to lobby and harangue until the real issue is addressed. 

A few months ago, I wouldn’t have known where to start but after yesterday I am convinced that we all need to find a way, however small, to add our own voice to the rising chorus that is out there. We can do this on social media sites; at SLT meetings and staff meetings; at our local collaborative groups; by writing ‘Mr Angry’ style letters to our PPCs, MPs, professional bodies, local papers, national papers etc. etc.

And I think the question has got to be;

“What are you doing to ensure that children of the future are not educationally disadvantaged just because of where they live”

This isn’t an election issue. It is a problem that will have a significant effect of the delivery of education (and the economy) in the UK in both the short and long term and there isn’t a quick fix. 

We need a steady rebalancing of per pupil funding over, in all likelihood, 10-15 years but we have got to start NOW and we need to do it TOGETHER. 

The SBM Roundtable

I won’t lie, my head is literally buzzing from my first “round table” of SBMs event held in Birmingham today. 

The opportunity to talk about the election manifestos and future policy making was just too great a draw and something I’ve wanted to be more involved in for a long time. So I threw my anonymity into the wind, accepted the invitation and went for it!
The event was nothing short of inspirational for me. Even though I see myself as a leader in education, involved in pushing the role forward and capable (I’ve always thought) of “holding my own”, I have always struggled to see myself as a “mover and shaker” in a wider context, until today that is. 

The discussion centred around the @midlandssbm summaries of the three main manifestos (definitely worth a view if you haven’t seen them yet) specifically; funding, the (ongoing) changing role of the SBM, MAT conversion and structures, as well as governance, school meals, and a short diversion into whose office has the best view!

The debate was well informed by the tremendous collective knowledge and experience around the table, represented by nursery, primary and secondary phases, consultants and NASBM. While we agreed that we didn’t have all the answers, it was felt reasonable to declare that with our collective nounce, we did have some of them. 

So here, in my words, is our message to the next Government (whoever that might be);

1. Per pupil funding of schools needs to be balanced nationally. We are not expecting this to happen overnight and accept there will be many years of funding guarantees to those schools who will experience a reduction. The current funding system isn’t sustainable in the long term so you may as well make a start now. You are only delaying the inevitable. 

2. As part of the funding changes, the table agreed that it is vital that the funding of additional needs is delivered in a more coherent and transparent way. This included not only high needs, deprivation, mental health and FSM but also a requirement to give schools the autonomy to decide which pupils are most in need and how they will be supported most effectively. 

3. SBMs are ready to take control of their profession and their pivotal role in leading schools. They can no longer be seen as “supporting Headteachers”. An SBM’s skills, experience and leadership, that is already driving further improvement across education, must now be recognised by the industry (I’m also thinking RSC, ASCL and NAHT). It was accepted that the changes needed to get this professional recognition will not be without pain, but again, let’s start now. 

I really felt like I was part of a force to be reckoned with today. Thank you so much to our host and everyone who attended. Let’s do it again soon.

The final words must be directed towards the new Government so, as seems appropriate, in the speak of my 15 year old stepson…

…Crack on. 

Are you an SBM?

Over morning coffee in the garden today Barry welcomed “Mr Robin”, a frequent visitor who has been stalking us for some time. I, of course, queried why it was “Mr” Robin and discovered his belief that it was only the males with the red breast. A quick google confirmed that male and female robins are identical (to the layperson – I’m sure that there are ways ornithologists can tell them apart) and the discussion moved on to did-I-actually-have-a-“prove-Barry-wrong”-search-engine? 

It’s not going to be very pc to say this but I clearly remember the days when there was a marked difference between the male and female SBM. When I first started in the role there were quite a number of “old school ties” as they were affectionately known in my local area. Gentlemen, perhaps ex-forces or retired bankers, who felt that they were qualified to be the School Bursar by virtue of the long years of experience gained in their “proper job”. They used to bug me. Not because they weren’t doing the job but because they weren’t taking it anywhere. 

As Bursar evolved into SBM, they began to look more and more uncomfortable with the role which, I believed, they had felt would have tided them over nicely until they were ready to retire into their garden and the local gentleman’s club. 

But the SBM evolved more quickly than I think anyone realised it would. In 2003 I attended an SfE course “From Bursar to School Business Manager” (I have a certificate and a dusty file to prove it!) This was the first indication that the SBM was to become far more than Treasurer in a school. Instead, the course claimed, the role was moving to “All functions that affect the provision of the learning environment” including “Admin, HRM, Site, Information and Support Services Management”; and proceeded to teach these new SBMs how to get themselves accepted as a strategic thinker and leader in their school. 

Even so, I’m not sure even then that anyone knew how vital and professional the role would become. How it would be different in each school depending on the individual appointed (and frequently the forward thinking attitude of the appointer); the sector; and the skill set of the rest of the SLT. How it would evolve further and how, after all this time, it would continue to do so. 

I’m nearing the end of my 15th year as an SBM. I continue to embrace and be excited by the changes and I get cross with individuals that, I perceive, are holding back progress in the role, stalling improvement of systems, putting up barriers to collaboration and efficiency and, yes, holding back my profession. 

I’m not suggesting that there is still a difference between male and female SBMs. There are very few “old school ties” left, but I do believe that there are quite a few jobs out there, calling themselves SBMs, who would actually just like to be the Treasurer. 

So while I’m not attempting to devalue the SBM who doesn’t want the whole role, I think the sooner we find a way to identify the differences, the easier it will be for everyone who does actively want to be part of a very worthwhile, strategic and forward thinking profession to gain recognition for their contribution. 

Fear is not an option

A young colleague came to talk to me today to express how frightened she was by the terrible attack in Manchester and it struck me that this was her first adult experience of an attack of this magnitude on home soil. She was scared for herself, her own children and the school; she needed reassurance that we were doing all we could and that it was likely her children’s nursery had similar processes in place to minimise (as far as possible) the loss should an incident take place nearer to home. 

It reminded me that we must not underestimate the effect that an attack such as this can have on people who you might think are too far removed from events to be effected and it also demonstrates how much we need each other in times of a crisis.

Of course, I can’t tell my colleague that nothing will happen here, but I was able to give her the opportunity to talk about her worries and I was able to explain the processes we have in place and reassure her that it was ok to ask her children’s nursery as well. 

I often joke that the reason I have a standing desk is because if I sit still for long and think about my role, I would become too overwhelmed to be any use to anyone! Fear is really not an option for an SBM. When you are responsible for the safety and wellbeing of over 1000 people, the majority of whom are under 18,(even though that responsibility may be shared with other members of the SLT), the luxury of fear is not something that is useful or productive. That thick skin we grow not only protects us from some of the nonsense that goes on around us, it also gives us a shield against the enormity of our job.

I am aware that the downside of the thick skin is that I can sometimes come across as a bit austere. I’m not the most outwardly emotional person, I am a solution finder and problem solver, not a dweller over difficulties. I do try to maintain an approachability that works, for the most part, but I have to accept that sometimes I fail. That is how I cope with my responsibility. 

But like everyone no doubt, I cried when I read the news of Manchester at breakfast time. I spent a quiet moment thinking of everyone involved and sending prayers, and then I went to work to check through our own emergency plans and walk the site, taking some time to enjoy the hub-bub of all our spirited young people getting on with their day. 

How does Value Chain work in School?

Yesterday I spent a very enjoyable evening playing with Michael Porter’s Value Chain (and my colouring pencils – I’m finding it difficult to suppress that creative urge at the moment!) I’ve always maintained that there are very few business theories that can’t be applied to schools just by swapping profit for results. 

It is important to note at this point that by “results” I don’t just mean exams. Schools add value to the whole individual and results should reflect the growth, behaviour, health, attitudes and learning of the student, whether they be nursery, primary, secondary or FE.
Anyway, Porter has always been my favourite with the Value Chain, in my opinion, more interesting than his 5 Forces in promoting debate surrounding a company (or in my case, school) strategy. 

The Value Chain looks at the functional process of a business, and accepts that every business takes something in (be it components, elements of a service, or child) and processes it, adding value along the way until the product, service or student leaves the business, (perhaps then giving the company an opportunity for after sales service, accessory sales or alumni events feeding back in to the school.) These are the Primary Activities of a business and their aim is to add value to the product that realises more in results or margin than has been spent on its conversion into something that the customer desires. The Primary Activities also provide the strength and stability needed by the business to maintain its place in the market. 

Along the top of the Value Chain model are the Support Activities. Without these functions the company couldn’t perform the Primary Activities but they do not, for the most part, directly effect the end product. From a value point of view the Support Activities are important in that they offer the business an opportunity for competitive advantage and differentiation. 

So, how to use this in a school? The Value Chain helps focus strategic improvement in its activities by enabling the user to consider each activity and how it links to other activities. To look at whether these links are as effective as you would want and whether there is anything that would improve the link or the activity. 

For example, to take it from the top, how does the administration function support the Primary Activity of admissions? How important is that link? Would it be an improvement priority for your school? How would you improve it? And if that link was improved, would that have a knock on effect to the marketing function or an aspect of HR? With the assumption that most activities link in some way to each other, there are a considerable number of links to develop and prioritise. 

For me, there are two very interesting things about the Value Chain. Firstly, the combinations are endless and every school, business, situation and team are going to look in a different way at the functions that are important to them, consider different links and efficiencies and would, naturally, prioritise them differently. Secondly very few schools consider the value that the procurement process (for example) adds to the end product and the ultimate satisfaction of the customer. The Value Chain encourages thinking that, usually for a school, is outside of the norm. 

Exciting stuff! (Or is that just me?)

Hope is not a strategy

Good SBMs, in my experience, are strategic animals. We don’t hope that act vs bud will match at the end of the year, we set up a detailed forecasting analysis system that will allow us to closely monitor income and expenditure and report differences (I hate surprises). We don’t hope that a key member of staff isn’t going to leave – I’m thinking Senior Caretaker here – we engage in succession planning and take short videos of his boiler coaxing techniques in order to bring a replacement quickly up to speed, should the need arise. We don’t hope that our building next to the canal isn’t going to flood, we think about defences and business continuity for when the inevitable actually happens. 

I enjoy the strategic part of my job the most. It is woven into every aspect of my role and I’ve had to train my brain to think of the “what if” scenarios for every function and proposal. The downside of this is that it can make me come across to colleagues as a harbinger of doom, so it needs to be tempered with a decent slice of humour. 
A Business Continuity Plan and, it’s brother, the Crisis Management Plan need to be working documents. There is no point writing down carefully what you are going to do in the event of…if you don’t then test it out. I try to squeeze scenario testing into SLT agenda as often as I can. “What if there is an incident at home and we need to get a student back from a trip immediately?” “What if our admissions don’t reach PAN?” “What if the school kitchen is gutted by fire?” “What if the DHT snaps his Achilles?” This sort of exercise not only informs what we would do and keeps the documents alive, but also helps build us into a cohesive team, working together in an imagined crisis. 

Strategy can get lost in the day-to-day pressures of working in a school. Sure, we have SIPs and SDPs, we consult stakeholders on how they would like to see our community evolve, grow and improve but, with my business head on, I sometimes worry that we don’t look objectively enough. We don’t spend enough time on the strategic tools, such as SWOT and PESTEL; we don’t consider our brand or our USP to ensure we are maintaining how we want to be perceived by the outside world; we concentrate too much on fire-fighting the operational issues. 

I think that SBMs need to be the ones that are pushing and leading the strategic work in schools, keeping it regularly on the agenda and promoting debate with what-if questions. 

After all, an SBM is the sort who doesn’t just hope that it isn’t going to rain on their August wedding day, they say “Sod it” and wear their wellies. 

Luck is not a factor

As a new user of Twitter I’ve been rather dismayed by conversations around reports of numerous SBMs leaving the profession due to isolation, pressures of work and an increasingly challenging role in schools.

I don’t know why I’m surprised by this because half way through my own career I seriously considered abandoning the role of SBM myself. Without going into any of the horrible detail, suffice to say I found myself in a state of severe stress that had, I now see, begun to manifest fairly serious physical symptoms (that I am still unpicking). 

I’m not quite sure how, probably that backed-into-a-corner trait and sheer bloody mindedness, I managed to secure a fantastic new job in another school and I started again. 

Looking back, I’m proud that I did that myself. I had no support (apart from Barry, of course – he made me say that) from anyone in the SLT at the time, colleagues, HR, the LA or my Union. I quite literally felt I had nowhere and no one to turn to for help. It would have been very easy to walk away. 

So I guess what I am most dismayed about is that SBMs are still, after all these years, leaving because they reach the point that I very nearly did, where the only option is to leave something you love completely because the support just isn’t there when the proverbial really hits the fan. 

You would think the SBM group network would be the answer but I’ve long been dissatisfied with my local SBM group even though it is well regarded, large, popular and well attended. I no longer attend meetings because I am unable to reconcile my profession with the casual “day off” that their get-together promotes. The agenda is often dominated by presenters dressing up their information as best they can but clearly wanting to sell me something, and I feel like a fish out of water. Of course, should anyone ask me, I would encourage every SBM to attend their local group but I’m uncomfortable that I don’t follow my own advice. 

However, since joining Twitter and discovering that there are actually like-minded business orientated professionals out there offering friendship and support, I’m realising that there is more help out there than I knew, but I still wonder if it is the sort of support that could be effective in a crisis. 

When I hit my crisis point I desperately needed someone to talk to. It needed to be someone who had experience and understood the issues but be neutral. It couldn’t be a local SBM because I didn’t want everyone (or anyone I knew for that matter) knowing what had gone wrong.

What I needed was a mentor. 

Someone to tell me what I was going through was normal, a result of chronic stress and that there really was a light at the end of my very dark tunnel.

So my advice now? If you are a new SBM, join the groups, build relationships and get involved, but don’t feel you have to go to every meeting if it isn’t your thing. What is more important is that you make a connection with a like-minded SBM, nurture that relationship and keep them in touch with your career development. Because when the crisis hits (and it will at some point) you need to talk it through with someone, you need help to make sense of it all and you need help to draw up a plan of remedial action. 

Together, you can work through the issues so that you can keep working in the job we all love and, perhaps, you can go on to be a mentor yourself.