May 2013


  • Advantage, Anyone?
    The belief that streaming and setting promotes rigour and therefore raises standards is not borne out by the evidence and could be putting poorer students at even greater disadvantage, according to new ASCL research into social mobility. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
  • Leading lessons
    A school-based centre dedicated to leadership and training is developing innovative approaches to professional development for the school that runs it and for its neighbours, explains Chris Holmwood. More
  • Climate control
    Switching to part-time headship ahead of retirement can give a school extra time to recruit a new leader and help the transition to a new life, as Colin Mason is discovering. More
  • Making vital connections
    They began as informal self-help groups but business manager networks are morphing into a vital source of support for the profession. Liz Lightfoot reports. More
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They began as informal self-help groups but business manager networks are morphing
into a vital source of support for the profession. Liz Lightfoot reports.

Making vital connections

As schools take on new responsibilities in the fragmented world of academies and free schools, the role of the business manager is changing. The buck stops with the head but it’s the business manager who has to sort out the details.

Even schools still within the local authority umbrella are feeling the changes as central support services shrink, and it can bring an unwelcome sense of isolation.

School leaders are largely managing to retain their local and regional groups to compare notes, support one another and keep up to date.

Teachers too have support networks. If they have a problem with a class, they can go to school leaders, the staffroom or their unions for advice. But who can the business manager turn to? Business managers say their job can be a lonely one and a culture shock for those with backgrounds in the networking world of finance.

A solution has come in the form of business manager groups, most started informally by a handful of people meeting for a meal and ‘a natter’. As word spread these groups have morphed into professional organisations, some holding their own conferences.

The National College is promoting the groups as a way of enhancing the profession and spreading good practice. In June, ASCL’s fourth annual business management conference in Birmingham will include a workshop on national and international networking and the implications for the profession.

‘Pick up the phone’

But if business managers feel cut off, how do they go about building up a network? Easy, says Bruce Doy, the business manager of The Boswells School in Chelmsford, Essex. “Just do it. Pick up the phone and start talking to each other and you will wonder within a short period of time how on Earth you managed without it,” says Bruce, who comes
from a banking background.

His meeting after school with three other business managers seven years ago has led to a 50-strong group in central and north Essex, now hosting its own Google chatroom and running regional conferences. Over the years, most schools have converted to academy status but up to a dozen business managers in the group still work for local authority (LA) schools.

“When you are asked to write a Freedom Of Information (FOI) policy or a disaster recovery plan, where do you start? You could spend two or three days on the research or you can save re-inventing the wheel by finding out if someone else has already got one. It’s a way of enabling
business managers to work smarter and if they work smarter then the
school runs more efficiently, the teachers are happier and the students’
education will benefit,” says Bruce.

The well-used Google chatroom features anything from missing handbags to conversations about the newly published figures for next year’s budgets. “A school recruiting a business manager asks for suitable questions for the interview; a member wants to know if someone would share a policy for lettings and hiring; another business manager is seeking information on companies providing photocopiers,” he says.

Getting the best deals from suppliers by swapping notes is one of the benefits of being part of a group, Bruce says, but so many companies
wanted to talk to them that the suppliers were taking up most of the
meetings, leaving less opportunity for business managers to debate and discuss other issues central to their work. So the suppliers were
moved to a conference held in March.

Growth in size need not mean added bureaucracy. “One member suggested formalising our group or affiliating to a national body. The
reaction so far has stopped just short of a public flogging,” says Bruce. “We value the ability to speak and chat confidentially. One member told me last week that it was the one part of their life which was not regulated and recorded and it was wonderful.”

Sponsorship is key

In the current economic climate, sponsorship is central to keeping costs down, says Karen Bonser, the chair of the 194-member Nottingham Association of School Business Management (NASBM). The group was founded nine years ago by a handful of people who got together socially for a meal when she was the business manager of The Gedling School in Nottingham. Now the business manager of the National Church of England (CofE) Academy in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, Karen says that commercial sponsorship has kept the membership fee at £30 a year. The group includes representatives from its two main sponsors on its committee. It receives from £2,500 to £3,000 from its main sponsor and further funding from others, plus support ‘in kind’, such as help with the website.

Is there a risk of a conflict of interest in choosing one school supplier as a sponsor over another? “There is always a risk but we choose local and recommended suppliers who can deliver with us our aims and objectives,” Karen says. Sponsors do not expect preferential treatment, although they give discounts to members.

David Allen, the finance and operations director of The Iceni Academy in Thetford, Norfolk, chairs the Association of Business Management in Norfolk Schools (ABMNS), a group that was also started informally. The first meeting was promoted by email and word of mouth and attracted 35 managers.

The Norfolk group is open to all business managers, including those at
special and independent schools. “We designed our constitution to be broad and inclusive. We felt there were a number of continuing professional development [CPD] needs shared across the sectors and that people from different backgrounds could contribute in different areas. We built up our membership to 55 in a very short time,” says David. “With limited time individually for CPD, there was a risk that our knowledge of critical factors such as health and safety legislation and financial governance could fall behind.

“Whether or not schools see themselves as competitors, we are trying to build a collaborative culture in the business management
community that is about helping one another,” he adds.

Meetings are held once a term and the association’s committee meets twice a term with sessions held at about 4pm. Networking events are held at 8.30am or 2.30 to 3pm so they do not take people out of school for the whole day.

Word of mouth

The biggest challenge in getting a group together is formulating that committee. “If you can get a nucleus of four or five people, then it is straightforward from there. We contacted other groups who showed us their constitutions. It was easy to set up a website with no cost involved. We don’t spend on marketing; we use word of mouth and write to groups of heads and governors to make them aware of us,” says David.

David is one of 15 school business manager advocates for the National
College, covering the east of England. The advocates work across the
nine government regions to raise awareness of the school business
management profession, to promote avenues for career progression
and to show how the role can improve school effectiveness.

Fellow advocate Teresa Phipps, the business director of The Coleshill School in Birmingham, says that being able to consult other business
managers on the conversion process and pitfalls was invaluable when her school became an academy in 2011.

“Part of our remit for the National College is to build networks across
our region to shape best practice,” Teresa says. “Some groups are purely for academies because they have got slightly different needs but most include all types of schools, including primaries.”

The role of a business manager is very full and you have to make a commitment to find time to go the meetings, Teresa adds. “If you can walk away with just one piece of information beneficial to your school, it will be worth it.”

  • Liz Lightfoot is a freelance education writer.

ASCL Fourth Annual Business Management Conference, Birmingham, 6 June 2013

The conference will focus on the latest issues on business management and will include high-profile speakers, practical workshops and valuable networking opportunities, all of which will serve to examine the pivotal role that business management professionals play in securing the sustainability of our education system. For more information or to book your place, go to