In it for the money

I’m going to come right out and say it. I love my business manager. And, considering the changes that have occurred in headship over the years, that’s just as well. As leading a school has become just as much about running a business as it has about educating children, I can think of no other role that has risen in prominence as much as the school business manager.

When I first became a teacher I was aware that the school had a bursar. A man would turn up once a month and spend an afternoon in an office with the Head and an open laptop working out if the school had any money left. His role was to check the numbers and to do the books although his role had nothing to do with any of the books I was concerned with. I don’t think any of us, not even the Head, would have described him as a fully-fledged member of staff.

Many years later, when I became a Deputy, I worked closely with the school bursar who later became the school’s business manager, mainly because we shared an office but also because, as part of my NPQH, I had decided to do a course on ‘strategic financial management’. The very fact that I had chosen that course highlights the growing importance and accountability with which Heads had to think strategically with the cash that, even for local authority maintained schools, they were granted more ‘freedoms’ with. The main drive being: don’t end up with a deficit budget.

I learnt a lot from this person, in particular about the relationship between them and the Head/senior leadership team. These relationships although highly positive still had their frustrations. For a start we worked to different time scales. Try as she might, the business manager could not find a way of getting any member of the SLT to understand that the money ran out at the end of March and not the last day before the summer holidays. Stalemate conversations would occur all through April concerning the logical/illogical (depending on your point of view) reasons as to why it was literally impossible to buy any more glue sticks until the start of the new financial year.

There were also maddening conversations around setting predictive budgets for the next three years.

Business Manager: But you don’t understand, if you don’t cut back spending, not only will you have no money but you will owe the local authority 2.4 million pounds.

Head: Oh it will be fine.

Business Manager: No it won’t. Look at the formula for next year’s budget.

Head: Ok, let’s have a look. Hang on what’s this? You’ve just handed me a page and a half of nonsensical algebra equations, I asked for the budget formula damn it.

Business Manager: That is the formula and according to this your budget in three years’ time is fifteen shillings and sixpence.

Head: Oh….oh well it will be fine.

Somehow it always was. A combination of new and convoluted funding streams that, although weren’t part of the overall budget, came in at different times for different, often political, reasons; natural staffing changes; school incomes that never seemed to materialise until the day before your ‘deficit’ budget was about to get sent to governors and then suddenly you had a carry-forward of £34000; and sheer luck/skill on behalf of the Head (depending on your point of view) all made sure that the school was kept in the black.

School business managers were now fully accepted members of the staff team and, in my own experience as a Head, the school business manager is as vital as a good Deputy – and in many ways more so.

There is a delicious bluntness to a good business manager’s perspective. I am highly skilled at diplomacy and trying to get everything and everyone to move on, fit together and be effective. I like individuals to feel empowered and equal. When things are not going according to plan, rather than use performance related pay as a stick to beat the under-performer with until they submit, I prefer to invest in them because everyone deserves a chance to succeed. And then I’ll chat to my business manager who will point out that this ‘problem’ is costing me £20,000 more a year than the highly effective NQT down the corridor. Suddenly my liberal and supportive nature seems quite weak.

It’s akin to child protection. It is easier to try and ignore a potential safeguarding issue. You may have a hunch, there may be issues but you know it wouldn’t meet threshold levels so you could be tempted to shrink back and hope for the best. Then you remember that you are a Head and it is your duty to safeguard the children in your care so, even though it won’t cross social care’s threshold, it has crossed yours, so you act, you put support in place and a child is kept safe and secure. The easy road is not often the right one. Take a step back and look at the actual cost of a member of staff who is not delivering and you realise that you are not ensuring that the children are getting a good enough value for money deal on their education. That’s the perspective my business manager gives me.

It’s cold, I’ll grant you, but it’s a conversation no other member of my staff will have with me. That is not to say I no longer believe in staff support or development-as does my business manager for that matter- but it’s an important part of the equation when making strategic decisions that will impact on the education of the children. And it’s not just the cost of teachers that my business manager challenges me on, it’s everything. Resources, initiatives, schemes, programmes of study, consultants, agencies…the list is endless because nothing in this world is free. A good business manager knows the cost of everything. A good Head knows the educational impact of everything. But only when you put those two together can the impact on whole school improvement be judged.

That is partly why I love my business manager. They provide me with an insight that I still find it too easy to forget. Now, despite what you may currently be thinking, my business manager is not some cold hearted terminator who places balancing the books above everything else. They understand that their role is to make sure that the school is financially able to improve. As a valued member of SLT they too will scrutinise data and books and planning and, although they do not judge educational effectiveness, they are guided by the SLT members who do, and together, we evaluate overall effectiveness. Due to a better understanding of our educational aims, our business manager has sought out funding streams and presented us with ideas to help us raise standards in ways that no one else on SLT would ever have thought of. In terms of adding value to SLT therefore, our business manager has added a conservatory as well as a loft extension complete with en-suite and underfloor heating.

I still don’t understand budget formulas. I still get ‘that’ look from my business manager when I announce my next big idea, the look that says ‘and how are you intending to pay for that then?’ I still have to manage my business manager’s frustration when a year’s worth of ordering comes in on the 5th April because subject leaders still don’t understand how the financial year works. I still ask for the impossible when trying to squeeze every last penny out of my budget claiming that a carry-forward of twenty quid will be fine. I still have to occasionally say ‘it’s not all about the money though is it?’

Despite all of that, I can honestly say, that without my business manager, the school would be a poorer place – and I ain’t just talking about the wonga.

4 thoughts on “In it for the money

  1. andyc37 April 22, 2015 / 1:01 pm

    I completely agree. In the independent sector, the business manager / bursar is crucial. If we don’t get in the fees, we go bust. If we overspend. And there go the jobs…
    We’re a business, so the expertise of our bursar is essential!

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