The rise and rise of business managers

Written by: HTU | Published:

The school business manager is an established part of the leadership of England’s secondary schools, but primaries are still some way behind. That’s now changing, as Nick Bannister discovers

The rise of the school business manager (SBM) as a key player in the running of a school has been one of the major school leadership trends in recent years.

According to the National College, about 90 per cent of secondary schools now have access to a SBM – a professional trained to handle the business management side of running a school, from payroll and HR to managing building projects and facilities lettings.

The figure is significantly less in primaries. About 40 per cent of primary schools in England are said to have access to school business management.

The reasons behind this are, when you think about it, obvious. Primaries are smaller and budgets more limited. There is a tradition of primary headteachers spinning all the plates and taking on more than the leadership of teaching and learning. And secondaries have always had a dedicated back office staff while primaries often rely on a single school secretary.

But the case for primaries bringing in professional school business management appears to be compelling.

The National College says there is clear evidence that “appropriately skilled and effectively deployed” SBMs can save about a third of a headteacher’s time and five per cent of the school’s resources.

The signs are that more primaries are getting the help of an SBM. With more and more primaries removing themselves from local authority control through academy status, or working together in trusts and federations, SBMs are gaining a significant foothold in primaries. Funding from the National College – in the form of Primary Partnership funding – has also helped over 1,700 primaries get access to SBM services through partnering up with other schools.

Tracey Brown’s career path mirrors the growing importance of school business management to primary schools in recent years.

Ms Brown, who is SBM at Lutley Primary School in Halesowen, joined the school four years ago as an SBM after previously working as an office manager in another school. “The headteacher advertised the role and I applied after taking the Certificate for School Business Management,” she explained.

“We worked together to develop the role. At first we had no real idea of what the role would be. But over time I took responsibility from the headteacher for areas such as the budget, effective systems management and building projects and this allowed the head to focus on teaching and learning.”

The role changed soon after Lutley Primary was judged an outstanding school by Ofsted. Headteacher Jeannette Mackinney became a Local Leader of Education and started supporting a local school, Lapal Primary. Ms Brown also started to support the school and soon after that a proposal was put together to create a federation of the two schools – the first in the Dudley local authority. Ms Brown is now business manager for the federation.

“This lets us make significant cost savings,” she continued. “And Lapal now has SBM support that previously it wouldn’t have been able to afford. We also received Primary Partnership funding to help support my role at Lapal in the early stages.” The federation also provides economies of scale when it comes to buying equipment and services such as new ICT equipment, Ms Brown added.

She says she was fortunate to have a headteacher who already bought into the idea of school business management before she got the role, and she admits that there may be other headteachers who will take more persuading to stop spinning some of their many plates. Working together and establishing a common goal is one way to approach this, she added.

“The arrangement works well here. I have the budget knowledge as does the head because we set the budget together. While I may be running the business side of the school I’m ultimately here for the pupils as much as the head. If there is something that the school needs that will make a real difference to teaching and learning then my job is to enable that.”

Flavia Highfield is SBM at Colmers Farm Junior School in Birmingham. She joined the school as a senior office manager having previously worked as a bursar in a middle school and a SBM in a primary. The role has since developed into a dedicated school business management position and Ms Highfield is now contemplating a period of major change which is likely to lead to further changes in her role.

“We are currently going along the academy route and are set to become a sponsored academy in March so my role will change as a result of that. I’m already speaking to colleagues in other schools that have already gone through the conversion. The consensus is that the workload explodes so I’ve taken on more admin support in the office in readiness.”

Whether a school is going for academy status or not, the realities of running a school are changing and there is a growing emphasis on schools having to do more for themselves, says Ms Highfield. “Primary headteachers have been used to doing everything themselves but this is no longer possible. The role of SBM is fairly well embedded in the secondary sector but primaries are having to change to reflect the need for business support,” she added.

“In many primaries, the SBM has been able to take over responsibilities that the headteacher has traditionally undertaken – it’s about running the school efficiently to ensure that the resources are there for staff. It’s not value for money for headteachers to be dealing in certain staffing issues. It’s not good value for money for them to be dealing day-to-day with the budget.”

An issue facing many SBMs mirrors that experience by heads up until comparatively recently – professional isolation. This isn’t an issue for Ms Brown or Ms Highfield. Both helped set up an SBM networking group in the Dudley area. Ms Brown remains a member of the group and Ms Highfield now serves as a committee member for the Birmingham Bursars Group – a network formed in 1999 to represent the views of bursars, business managers and other support staff in schools within the Birmingham area. The group now has more than 280 members – representing more than half of the city’s schools.

“SBMs are lone workers and I really need that contact and advice,” Ms Highfield said. “If I have an issue 90 per cent of the time someone else has already been there and has some really practical advice that will help you.”

Both are active members of local networking groups and networking appears to be a common feature of the school business management community. “We always try and share what we know,” added Ms Brown. “While some people will have real expertise in one area others will have knowledge in other areas.”

While 40 per cent of primary heads already have access to professional school business management support, that still means there is a majority of primary schools that have yet to engage. Those schools may already have the makings of a professional SBM, said Ms Brown. “When you think back to when I was an office manager in a school and where I am now I would say that these headteachers probably already have the makings of an SBM in a school secretary or office manager, provided the opportunities to gain professional qualifications and training are there. Some headteachers might think that they can’t afford an SBM but I would say that they probably can’t afford not to have one. They will make enough savings to pay for their role in the first year and then continue to do that year after year.”

How to find a school business manager:

• Do some research. The National Association of School Business Management ( has lots of advice and information. Also try the National College for School Leadership at

• Look inside your own school. Your current school secretary or office manager may have the makings of an SBM; perhaps have a conversation about their career aims.

• Get professional advice. The National College has developed a range of professional qualifications for SBMs and has a national network of advocates who can help in your search for an SBM:

• Talk to other heads. A neighbouring primary or secondary may already have an SBM and you may be able to buy those services in for a couple of days a week. Either way, they will have advice on school business management.

• Nick Bannister is an education writer and communications consultant.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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