Traditionally, those looking after the business side of a school have worked in relative isolation from others in similar roles. However, as more schools have moved from local authorities to become independent academy trusts (and having specified roles for business and development managers), networking groups for business leaders have flourished.
Many of these groups sprang up in the Midlands and the North, although more are now being established in southern regions, and there is a national database on the DfE website. Whether local or regional, such groups provide an invaluable source of support in the shifting landscape of school business management. With academies responsible for many of the services previously provided by local authorities (such as HR and procurement), business leaders have had a steep learning curve. Even those still working in local authority schools have sought out additional support as traditional service provision has shrunk.
All this new responsibility has been a key factor in why SBMs are coming together to help each other and share ideas. ‘The increase in these groups has been particularly noticeable since the DfE published the Schools’ Buying Strategy,’ says Louise Hatswell of the ASCL. The groups are also being used to facilitate cost-saving collaborations on equipment and supply procurement, training and travel.
Their popularity is evident. The South Yorkshire School Business Leaders’ Group, established in early 2017, already has more than 185 members. Group chair Sharon Graham (operations manager and data protection officer at Saint Pius X Catholic High School in Rotherham)says there are many benefits. ‘As a well-established regional group, we support each other in a number of ways. The online forum gives members the opportunity to discuss pressing matters, as well as sharing best practice on new initiatives, such as creating links with sponsors.
‘Offering “best deals” to members has been central to our success. For instance, we recently facilitated a joint procurement exercise for a group of our members, which resulted in a fixed energy tariff for two years, saving the schools thousands of pounds. We have also purchased a FundEd subscription for all members so they can keep up to date with the latest grants available to schools and receive support with their bid-writing.’
She continues: ‘Training is a big part of our collaboration. We provide CPD opportunities, both at annual conferences and throughout the year. These have covered topics such as end-of-year procedures, attendance monitoring, mental-health first aid and bid-writing. We’ve also set up a GDPR working party, and we will be making bursaries available for members to access for further CPD/accreditation. It’s incredibly helpful to meet others facing similar challenges. The SBM is often the only member of support staff on the school leadership team – and this can be quite isolating. Working together gives us the opportunity to network with like-minded colleagues who fully understand the role.’