A View from the Engine Room

Script to session at EdExec Live – June 21st 2018

Hello. What’s my name again?

I have a few names.

I’ve been writing ‘View from the Engine Room’ in EdExec magazine for nearly a year now, so I guess here I’m Emma the EdExec Engineer. I’m hoping I can bring the same tone of organised chaos, informal compliancy and focus on wellbeing to this session.

I have other names…via my blog I’m WorkingSBM and through that I’m also Anna from Ask Anna and Edie from my holiday sleuthing stories.

Some days I struggle to remember who I am, but it all adds to the rich tapestry of work that is part of being an SBM.

In my working day I sometimes think I should hide my true identity with a super hero mask. Although if I could choose to be a super hero I’d be Jean Grey and she doesn’t wear a mask. Jean Grey is one of the X-Men, her ability is telepathy and telekinesis – not so helpful to the SBM – but she transforms into Phoenix who can control Time and Space and I could really use those skills in my job!

If I could control Time and Space I would make some of our classrooms a little bit bigger, especially Food Tech. Food Tech can only accommodate 22 students and every year about 26 want to take it at GCSE.

I’d also increase the number of days in August so I could have time to take a holiday and also do the necessary audit preparation so that September isn’t a manic whirlwind of new term, new staff , audit and new financial year.

I’ll let you all know when I get hit by a mutant gene and we can all decide together how I’m going to manipulate Time and Space.

I do think it helps in the SBM role to be a little enigmatic, a little bit mysterious. Who needs to know that I’ve stripped down and rebuilt a Sunbeam Alpine, or that I used to build computer power distribution units, or that I write a blog, or that I standing here talking to you now…no-one. Apart from anything else I don’t want to come across as a know-all as I’m balancing the budget, writing policy, managing health & safety or making sure everyone gets paid.

Nope, just call me Emma.

For the love of School Business Management

So in this session I plan to stick with talking about what I love and I love being one of these;

  • School Business Leader
  • School Business Manager
  • School Business Administrator
  • Chief Finance Offer
  • Finance Director
  • Chief Operating Officer
  • Bursar
  • Administrator
  • Admin

It doesn’t really matter what you call us, does it? It doesn’t really matter what others think we do. Basically…you know and I know…we run our school. We keep all the systems running smoothly, we facilitate the teaching and learning, we deal with compliancy, we are there to support and we are there to find solutions.

We source the gluesticks that the “squirrels” eat over the summer because they have discovered the open packet of biscuits left in the store cupboard and thought…”Hobnobs? No thank you – give me those yummy gluesticks everyday”. Did you know rats eat gluesticks? Nor me, but now I know they don’t just melt away over the summer break.

This is going to show my age but I think I’m a bit like the A-Team. I’m Hannibal, Howlin’, BA and Face all rolled into one problem solving crusader in heels and I love it when a plan comes together.

Sometimes my plans start out like one of Baldrick’s cunning plans, rather than a cool A-Team type of plan. I’ll tell you about one. Of course, occasionally, this happens… and this cartoon works as well for gender as it does for the teacher/support divide.

Ive decided that next year I’m going to focus on promoting equality and narrowing that gap.

Anyway, back to the cunning plan. I’m very keen on staff wellbeing and (as is usual with SBL’s) have a long and mostly secret history of leading and improving Health Safety and Wellbeing. I persuaded the SLT to let me lead on the topic in a whole staff School Improvement meeting. All went well in the meeting but after it, over the next few days, I met with a small backlash from a few staff who felt I wasn’t qualified to lead school improvement on this issue.

Luckily I had support from both Teaching and Support staff and we’ve turned it around by talking to them, by going ahead with a new working party and inviting the nay-sayers, by taking some quick-win actions so that they can see that this really is a vehicle for change. I always say you need a rhino-skin to be an SBM.

The biggest learning I have taken from this experience is that there often comes a point in the process where someone else is more effectively placed to implement ideas. Always remember that the point of an exercise isn’t to take credit for school improvement but to make it happen and bring stakeholders along.


I think it’s important to keep laughing in this job. I’ve got loads of stories to tell, I’m hoping you’ve bought some of yours along to share too. I’ve brought this one along, it still makes me chuckle because it was said with complete seriousness.

A senior teacher walks up to me in the middle of the field.

This is my school field. No students due to GDPR. You can tell it’s a school by the space bins. Why are they called “space bins”? Because you can see them from space.

I was on duty – who else here does duty? It’s one of this tasks that I think ugh, duty day – Flat shoes, warm clothes, brolley…but then when I get out there I love it. You can feel the energy coming off the field, it’s like a tangible aura of sheer joy hanging like a fog, the joy of being outside, being free, kicking a football with your mates…you know when people say “school days are the best days of your life” that is the times they mean. That’s why I do it. It reminds what I’m doing there and who my customer is.

Duty is also one of those tasks that other staff can see you doing and it raises your profile as a School Leader. In my last school I had some hairy moments as Senior Staff on duty, which was an all day “call in case of emergency” type role. Floods, asbestos alerts, unattended open chemistry store, staff downing tools and needing to be talked back from the cliff edge and let’s not forget the really major crisis, wanton daffodil trampling, dinner forks found in the bin and “quick there’s a dog on the school field!” Who says our job isn’t fun?

Anyway back to this Senior Teacher.

He strides up to me, no pleasantries, and says “If a car knocks you off your bike, how long do you have to claim on insurance?”


I thought for a minute it was one of those pop quiz scenario tests like on the film Speed, so I went straight back with a – further clarification needed question… “Are you hurt?”

“Oh no, it’s not me – I’m asking for a student” he stuttered (I think he was suddenly regretting blurting it out and not breaking the news to me gently)

“Are they hurt?”


You’ll be pleased to hear that I didn’t draw further on my ‘Speed’ analogy and advise him to “shoot the hostage”, I remained calm and replied…

“Well they need to look at their policy”

“OK Thanks” and he walked off!

I still have no idea what was going on…maybe he was doing it for a bet…but it demonstrates how, to be an SBM, you have to have an answer for EVERYTHING on the tip of your tongue.

Here are some questions I have answered in the school corridor…
  • Where are the PTA teacups? I was asked this 4 times in one week and I’ll admit that my last response was slightly more curt than the first.
  • Why have I got less pay this month? (because your pension band has moved.)
  • What’s left in my budget? (£6.22p but you still have this month’s reprographics to deduct)
  • Do we have enough exam desks? (yes we bought 30 more last May)

as I said – an SBL needs to know everything!

But this story leaves me with a serious learning point.

“Shoot the Hostage” is something we all need to do.

Not literally

I mean that when we are faced with what seems like an insurmountable barrier, our first instinct should be to try to find ways to remove it.

Again, not literally.

The “Shoot the Hostage” analogy makes us think about how we can resolve issues such as;

  • Lack of funding
  • Difficulties in recruiting
  • Site Maintenance issues
  • The Governor who enjoys heated debate
  • The member of staff who doesn’t understand your role

I’m convinced there are ways of removing these barriers and “Shoot the Hostage” is an excellent way that reminds me to think of unusual and unexpected ways to remove barriers completely, rather than starting with trying to find ways around them.

So, Why are we School Business Managers?

That was the byline of this session. I probably don’t need to tell you this really – but I do think it is sometimes easy to forget…

You’ll recognise these – can you think of any others?

And where are we going?

I don’t know about you but since the day I started as a School Business Manager I’ve been wondering what my next move is. Where am I going? Who is going to help me get there? What training do I need? What experience do I need? How can I push my skills and the role to the limits of my current situation – and then what?

On confident days, I’m going to be the CEO of a MAT. On less confident days I feel like I’m living on borrowed time and eventually someone is going to realise and I’m going to be rumbled!

But, one thing I’ve decided is that, whatever happens, it is going to be an adventure and I’m going to have fun.

Some days are going to be hard work

Some days are going to be really tough

Some days I’m going to worry

Some days I’m going to be reduced to tears

but my attitude is that…

These are going to be the learning days.

So I’m also going to;

Enjoy – the ride, the people, the successes

Appreciate – the hard working people around me

Build – relationships based on mutual respect and value

Support – others as much as I can, be professionally generous and say yes if I can

Accept – support from colleagues and lean on them when I need to

Learn – never stop being curious and be open to all points of view

Share – my success and experience with others


…And that is why I love being a School Business Manager.

So there you have it. My advice.
  • Reflect on where you’ve been and where you are going
  • Plan ahead
  • Laugh along the way
  • Work with others

And if you’re really up against it…

  • Shoot the Hostage.

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