What does ‘professional’ look like?

Towards the end of 2018 the Department of Education, alongside their external contracting of School Resource Management Advisers (SRMA), started to promote the term ‘School Business Professional’ (SBP) in an effort to identify practitioners who were working at the very highest standard of School Business Leadership. The new term brought yet another new title for our role and derision from colleagues, many of whom, myself included, quite liked the title of ‘School Business Manager’ (SBM), and were only just getting to grips with ‘School Business Leader’ (SBL).

Since then, I’ve been thinking about writing an article on what it means to be an SBP, but I have found it much more difficult and contentious than I’d thought. The truth is that our role is so diverse, I thought I will never be able to pigeon-hole the different approaches, at least not without annoying a lot of my fellow SBMs!

However, what is the point of writing an article that just offers a consensus of agreement and doesn’t promote anything in the way of further conversation? So this is going to be an opinion piece. My opinion. You may not agree, but I hope it gets you thinking and talking within your regional groups and networking platforms.

 

The discussion around the generic title of such a varied role is not new. I am based in a rural county that is very small school heavy and I used to go along to my regional SBM meeting in my usual power suit and heels and stand next to someone in joggers and trainers. I found it very hard to relate. Our roles were just completely different, our qualifications, experience, setting, approach, hours and levels of responsibility were completely different, but we both held the title of SBM.

I want to make it clear that when I say different, I do not mean better or worse, higher or lower, or more or less valuable to their setting, just that I felt the roles were incomparable. I began to struggle to justify the time out to go to the meetings and my participation tailed off. 

It wasn’t until I started to reach out to a wider network that I began to understand. SBM’s in other parts of the country were honest with me about why they took a certain approach to their role and I started to realise that we do the whole profession of the SBM a disservice by trying to align everyone into one generic title. There is no support to be found by telling each other that it doesn’t matter what we are called, because that also means there is no career pathway, there is no personal growth, and there is no mobility or progression.

Let me give you an example of the current difficult position we find ourselves in. I’m a Secondary SBL of over 15 years. I am also Finance Director of a growing MAT. I have a DSBM and a MBA. I am a FISBL and an SRMA. I have written for national and international industry publications, spoken at conferences and write a regular blog on the joys of being an SBM. I guess I should consider myself to be working at the highest level of School Business Leadership, an SBP if you will. Last week I happened upon a local SBM job vacancy for a stand-alone academy, with a smaller NOR, offering a pay scale that was 20% higher than I am currently being paid. I was shocked, demotivated and initially cross with myself for not pushing my Trust for more money in the past. I don’t want to move to a smaller Trust with less opportunity just to secure better pay, but we can’t escape from the fact that the level of pay is an accepted indication of responsibility and commitment.

 

It is now clear that our desire to maintain a status quo of generic title has actually caused damage to the profession and I believe that it is time we took on the elephant in the room and started defining the levels of the role and appropriate national pay scales to enable clear routes of progression for everyone.

I’m not going to try to define the School Business Administrator, School Business Manager, School Business Leader and School Business Professional into one article, because that would probably be more than you want to read over your coffee break. So let’s start with the DfEs SBP.

We are often told at conferences and training workshops, “You are a professional” but I wonder how many of us actually believe it? As SBLs we have our very own professional standards produced by our very own professional institute. But how many of us use the standards in our day to day role in school, and how many of us place value on the Institute itself? What does it really mean to be a professional, and how do I know if I am one?

My Scrabble-bible dictionary gives me three definitions of the word ‘professional’;

1. Engaged in a profession as a means of livelihood and possessing distinctive qualifications
2. Being part of a professional organisation
3. A characteristic of or befitting a profession (such as conduct or ethics)

We are traditionally taught that the professionals are the doctors, lawyers, teachers, soldiers, scientists etc. and however much the world has changed, we have stuck with these roles, lifting them onto exalted pedestals to which we, mere mortals, can never aspire.

Only the world has changed. Technology has taken over and new roles have emerged that require as much (if not more) training than the traditional professions, meaning that we cannot keep identifying professionals into the narrow boundaries that history has dictated.

I believe that the key to being an SBP has got to be our own experience, attitude and self-belief.

No-one is going to consider me a professional until I consider myself to be one, no-one is going to treat my role in my Trust with respect unless I respect it myself, and no-one is going to listen to my point of view if I don’t have the confidence to give it.

So, I’m going to start by defining ‘professional’ for the School Business Leader, using our own context so that you can, if you fulfil all the criteria, be confident in calling yourself one.

1. You are working as a School Business Leader. This is the level to which you are working rather than your job title. You lead the business operations in a school or trust (however big or small), lead support staff, lead on the Finances and Procurement, work closely with the Headteacher/CEO/SLT and you are a senior member of staff in your setting. Although I’m mindful of the valuable work consultants do to support the industry, it seems to me that in order to call yourself a ‘School Business Professional’, you’ve got to be working in the role.
2. You are a member of ISBL. There is no escaping this one. In order to identify yourself as a professional you should be part of the professional body. Doctors are members of the GMC, solicitors of the Law Society, accountants of the ACCA. Professional SBLs must be members of ISBL. You get support, networking and connections, accredited training opportunities, gravitas, information and membership of an Institute that works on your behalf to raise the profile of your profession. Also, as JFK reminded us – Ask not what your Institute can do for you…
3. You have specific SBL qualifications or you are working towards them. This can be any SBL qualification from level 4 to 7 but a specific and accredited qualification in your role as an SBL is required for you to identify yourself an SBP.
4. You have the attitude of, and desire to be, an SBP. This one seems a bit vague at first, but I believe attitude is everything. You are outward facing, you are collaborative and you are supportive of SBL colleagues. You embody and project the professionalism of the role and you know that you represent your profession every time you offer a point of view. You hold a high ethical code and follow both the ISBL professional standards and the seven principles of public life. You are looking for ongoing career progression and development of the role in your setting and regularly consider succession planning. 

 

The truth is, it’s hard to feel like a professional when you are unpicking a budget, checking the position of electrical sockets in your new build or explaining again how the support staff pay calculation works, just like it must be hard for a doctor to feel like a professional when they are forcing a lolly stick down a child’s throat to peer at their tonsils. Every role has its own hum-drum. But your setting, now more than ever, needs a professional School Business Leader. Your school or Trust needs you to take responsibility for and lead the budget setting process. It needs an SBP on its leadership team (or access to one) to ensure efficiency, and long term financial sustainability. 

It is so important is that we all work to raise the profile of our vital role in Education and that is just not going to happen until we support the new School Business Manager to progress to School Business Leader who can then see a clear progression to School Business Professional. I am in the fortunate position of not having to chase the pay packet of that local vacancy and, as a result, take a step backwards in my career path, but I want to help make changes to our role, to ensure that no one should have to.

Let’s stop pretending that we are all the same when we so clearly aren’t. Let’s stop pretending that our title is meaningless. Let’s think about a national SBL pay scale defined on the size of our school, Trust or setting, and let’s give ourselves a clear career pathway that allows us to progress upwards as we grow with qualifications and experience.

 

 

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