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.

Everybody hurts


I drove past a school* today that irked me. I won’t name it but the irk inducement came from the fact that they obviously felt a cut above your average state maintained primary school. I presumed this because in the middle of one of their banners, that were plastered all over their site in the manner of a low-end gin joint, was a statement that read:

We want to educate our children rather than train them to pass tests.’

I mean, excuse me but…who do you think you are? Actually, no, who do you think I am? Do you think I exist to hot-house children, unethically nurturing them on a diet of past papers, sucking any bit of life out of their curriculum because I am deluded about the nature of success and addicted to Raise-Online? Do you think I place more value on data than I do on the individuals that inhabit my school?

Is that the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’? I am blindly going about my business training children, whilst the enlightened are doing oh so much more? Am I and my teachers blinkered? Do we really only care about one thing? In all the year groups? (Even the ones that don’t administer SATs?) Does my school think of nothing else? Is that what you really think about us?

Of course you don’t…how could I think such a thing…I’m awfully mistaken…I’ve taken it out of context, got the wrong end of the stick, silly boy.

But, in the manner of a Daily Mail headline, you have put that assumption out there. And, by doing so, you discredit my school and every other state maintained school in the country who, actually, work just as hard as you to put in place a nurturing curriculum that hopes and dreams of a better future for our children. And, by making comments like that, you hurt us.

You hurt us because you place, in the backs of parents’ minds, a suspicion that we are not dedicated to their children. So every booster group, every additional support intervention brings with it a cross-wired perception of how we see our role. That hurts our credibility and, sadly, I can’t afford an advertising campaign to say otherwise. No, I have to use happy children, rates of progress, levels of achievement, ofsted and sometimes…SATs, in order to boost my public profile.

But perceptions like these cut deeper than a school’s public profile. It cuts into teachers’ professionalism. If anyone could listen to the conversations that my staff have about our children then they would understand the time, care, knowledge, understanding and spot-on personalisation of support that goes into planning lessons, additional support, booster groups and general quality of provision. Then the work of teachers would not be at risk and undermined by snipy comments and perceptions that we’re only in it for the end of year age related money shot. It would be valued and treasured and my teachers would be thanked, praised and acknowledged for their determination to do right by the children they teach.

Sadly, cynicism seems to be winning. People prefer to misjudge rather than to understand, criticise rather than praise and ultimately devalue a profession that is more important than any other, and one that I am proud to be part of. It is this that really hurts. It is this that makes teachers decide to pack it all in and who can blame them? They’re working harder than ever and yet everyone else outside of the profession seems to know better. And why? Because somewhere along the line the message about ‘why’ and ‘what’ we do, became blurred with the ‘how’ we are judged. People began to assume that a narrow-minded judgement became our motivation and that opened the gates to scepticism, meaning that we now have to over-justify our reasons for every little thing.

This is not the fault of non-state maintained schools and I have absolutely nothing against the quality of teaching and motivation behind any educational organisation (except free schools) and I wish any teacher all the luck in the world. It was just sad to see another educationalist feed the beast of negativity towards schools like mine. I’d like to think we were all better than that. Maybe we are, maybe I’m just paranoid and REM came on the radio at the wrong time, maybe I should apologise to the school for reading too much into their adverts…you can’t blame me, inference is a level 5 skill after all and as you know, I’m all about the SATs.

*not in my patch or local authority area, don’t worry chaps.


Much Ado About Nothing

‘You chose this over Henry V? You’re idiots! You’ve got to do an exam on this you know. Didn’t the title give it away…nothing happens!’

Our replacement A-level teacher who was furious with us for getting bored with Henry V and switching texts half way through exam year.

Circa late 90s.


And so, as I got chucked out of my Deputy’s and Business Manager’s offices for the third time yesterday morning, I stropped around the office, bored, because sometimes, when you’re a Head…there’s nothing to do.

I know what you’re all thinking:

Teachers: Typical bloody senior leader, not doing any real work. Try working at the coalface mate-you won’t be bored then.

Senior Leaders: Typical Head – letting us do all the real work. (I can’t wait to be Head)

Heads: The man is an epic failure for a) thinking he has no work to do or b) giving the game away.

Well I’m sorry but it’s true. There are times – not many I’ll grant you – but times, when I honestly think that I shouldn’t have bothered coming in to work.

Take yesterday for example. There were no pressing matters for me to sink my teeth into. I put this down to two main reasons:

  1. I had been too bloody strategic for my own good last week.
  2. This term’s data deadline isn’t until Wednesday.

The few days before the data deadline are the worst. I can’t look ahead, I can’t analyse the past and there’s nothing interesting going on in the present, due to assessments going on whilst teachers give me evils because the data deadline is in the middle of the week and their PPA is on Thursday. So I am reduced to an infinite number of little jobs:

  • Authorising school orders
  • Un-authorising holiday requests
  • Preparing for a governor’s chairs meeting
  • Creating the backgrounds for the Christmas performance on PowerPoint
  • Emailing staff important messages about next week’s timetables
  • Updating health and safety files
  • Checking the child protection folder
  • Deleting emails
  • Trying to see if I can slip into the staff room for an extra mince pie without anyone noticing.

I’m not saying this stuff isn’t important – it’s just not what gets me up in the morning. It’s not stuff that when I leave work in the evening, I reflect back on, thinking: today was a good day to be a Head. No, yesterday was a day that achieved nothing spectacular, that did not move the school forward that did not develop me in any other way apart from expanding my waistline as I relentlessly gorged on miniature heroes whilst everyone else was working.

I don’t know how I should reflect on days like these. Should I accept the fact that when you don’t have a class to teach and when there is no crisis to reckon with or no master plan to strategize and put into action, the role of the Head is more caretaker than leader? Or should I jolly well find something meaningful to do?

My only consolation is that these days are few and far between: as today began with me chairing a PEP for a recently placed child in care followed by a meeting with a staff member going through their own crisis, followed by a development of an on-going behaviour issue that we had thought we’d almost cracked, the phrase ‘once more unto the breach dear friends, once more’ sprang to mind As I ended my day with my Deputy discussing twilight inset agendas, and, as I tossed the first chocolate éclair I’d had time for that day into my mouth, I thought: today is a good day to be a Head.