Recruiting a brilliant school business leader

Written by: Sandy Tomlinson | Published:
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How can you ensure that your school recruits a school business leader who is effective and successful? Sandy Tomlinson offers her advice

I am a business leader in a four-form entry school managing a team of eight staff and we are responsible for everything, except teaching. We cover HR, payroll, facilities management, health and safety, finance, procurement and administration and contracts management.

Headteachers can lack the experience to recruit effective business leaders. They understand the need for operational staff, for instance they might buy-in a finance service where local authority financial staff come in once or twice a month. What they don’t always appreciate is the strategic role of a school business leader.

Even now, when business leaders are more common, it is not unusual for the role to evolve as time goes by. In some ways, this is flattering because it means that the senior leadership team recognises our skills and trusts us to do our best for the school – but it can be daunting for new business leaders who at times may find that the job is not quite as advertised.

With this in mind, here are my top tips for headteachers to help them recruit their school business leader.

Plan ahead

Ideally the headteacher should sit down either with a consultant or an experienced business leader from another school or a school governor with substantial business expertise and define the role. The leadership team should also consider the skills gaps within the existing leadership, having undertaken a skills audit, and ensure that the new recruited role helps to alleviate these.

Some schools just use a generic job description but this is not advisable as this won’t reflect the needs of an individual school. Headteachers must recruit the right person for the job or they risk high staff turnover and reliance on agency staff, non-compliance with regulations and inadequate financial controls.

I would advise that before they draft the job and person specifications, it is a good idea to look at the National Association of School Business Management professional standards (available on the NASBM website). This is a mine of useful information and articulates the full extent of school business leadership and management within a school.

Qualities as well as qualifications

I strongly believe that alongside the right qualifications must be the right behaviours. First and foremost, a school business leader needs strong financial skills, but must also have the right personality.

Headteachers focus on educational outcomes, but are not necessarily alert to the financial implications or the risks of some of their decisions. For example, in a teacher recruitment crisis, a headteacher might be tempted to employ teachers without checking the finer details, such as security clearance or referencing.

This would run counter to safeguarding policies and could put children at risk.

It is the school business leader’s job to challenge these decisions; to make sure the school has the right personnel with the right checks in place, the money to pay staff and that the school’s reputation is not compromised. Honesty and integrity are vital and the NASBM standards incorporate a code of conduct document for school business leaders that will be useful for headteachers.

Look for a strategic thinker

The person appointed needs to be a member of the senior leadership team. If the school business leader does not have that seniority they are likely always to be working at a reactive level: they find out about things when the invoice comes in or when issues arise. That’s too late; they need to be proactive.

The educational landscape is always changing. The move to academies has highlighted the need for efficiency in financial management and procurement so they need a keen negotiator to drive down costs.

Within MATs, schools can collaborate as a group and benefit from economies of scale. Funding formulae change and school business leaders need to stay one step ahead of the game and have to be able to think outside the box.

Schools on the point of becoming an academy will, among other things, need to upgrade their financial package so that it meets the needs of all partners. Often headteachers will be looking at educational issues, so it is important that they have somebody with them in meetings to make sure that the administrative and financial nuts and bolts are in place.

Look for HR knowledge and experience

The school structure and workforce planning are part of the school business leader’s responsibility. Staffing is usually the highest cost a school incurs and with financial constraints they may have to look at the most effective and efficient deployment of the workforce or potential restructuring.

At my school in Newham, for example, we have 67 teaching assistants. We need to see how they are deployed and make sure we can meet the needs of the children without increasing costs. While teachers and senior management will be looking at providing for individual children, my role is to make sure that we are operating within our budget and getting the best value for money.

Look for an entrepreneurial approach

Gone are the days when a local authority paid for everything. When schools become academies they need to focus on marketing and income generation.

Parent Teacher Associations are skilled at small-scale fundraising with school fetes, cake sales and non-uniform days, but schools need to think bigger and be prepared to raise substantial sums. This might include bidding for grants from sporting organisations or the National Lottery, but often these are restrictive and must show a clear benefit to the local community, which in turn raises questions about capacity and security.

At my school, we have been taking stock of our facilities. As a result of the 2012 Olympics we have a multi-use outdoor games area with football pitches, netball, tennis and basketball courts, a six-lane running track and two large sports halls. We are now looking at letting these out to the community on a weekend or over the holidays. Similarly, conference and meeting facilities are at a premium in our area and are very expensive so we are also looking at how we can use our conference room.

Look for someone you can work with

I cannot stress enough the importance of the school business leader -headteacher relationship. School business leaders cannot do their jobs effectively unless there is a level of trust and respect. Headteachers have to trust school business leaders to keep them informed and keep the school financially stable and compliant. This level of trust can only come from a good, professional working relationship between the two parties.

Five years ago, when I started at my school, the role of the school business leader was still in development. I love my job. I never do the same thing two days in a row and I feel really privileged to be part of the school. When I go out into the playground, or see the after-school clubs and the leavers’ assembly, I know I have played my part. It is a great feeling.

  • Sandy Tomlinson left the world of banking and hotel management five years ago to take up a job as business lead at Vicarage Primary School in Newham, London. She has set up and chairs the Newham School Business Leader network which is affiliated with the NASBM. In 2015, she won the NASBM award for Leading Support Services.

Further information

The National Association of School Business Management is becoming the Institute of School Business Leadership in November. It is a professional body for school business leaders and offers training, qualifications, professional development opportunities and networking. Visit
www.nasbm.co.uk/isbl


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