2024 Spring Term

The know zone

  • The leading characters
    Assistant Headteacher Rich Atterton shines a spotlight on ASCL's remarkable 150-year history and says the story of the association is really the story of you, its members. More
  • Preserve and protect
    William Richardson explains how lockdown created a golden opportunity to recover, catalogue and permanently preserve ASCL's 150-year history. More
  • A look back through time
    Primary education has a rich and vibrant history, evolving over centuries to become the system we know today. Tiffnie Harris unveils the fascinating tale of how education for the youngest minds has transformed from its humble beginnings. More
  • When can I leave school?
    Sixth form education is still a relatively new concept in the context of the last 150 years of education. Kevin Gilmartin looks back at how our present sixth form sector has evolved. More
  • The evolution of business leadership
    Emma Harrison takes readers on a 150-year journey of school business leadership. More
  • Thanks and best wishes...
    From individual support and advice from our hotline and officers to the advice and guidance provided throughout the pandemic and beyond, here ASCL members share their memories and interactions with us and send their best wishes to the association. More
  • Embracing change
    Headteacher Tanya Douglas says she's extremely proud to be one of the longest serving members on ASCL Council - the engine room of the association's policymaking. More
  • Past Tense?
    Carl Smith shares a headmaster's log from 150 years ago and it may or may not surprise you that many of the challenges of the past remain to this day. More
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The evolution of business leadership

Emma Harrison takes readers on a 150-year journey of school business leadership.

Close your eyes, take 150 steps back, one for each year of ASCL, and you will find yourself in 1874. What does it look like, what does it sound like, what does it feel like as a business leader? 

We know it will have been very different to the current day. A lot may have changed (thankfully) but when we look back through history, we also find a lot of the same has gone before us: systems, procedures, and documented records. 

In discussing this article with my colleague, ASCL Funding Specialist Julia Harnden, miraculously, she produced a treasurer’s school cash book from about 1880. Within it were pages that chime with the current day – receipts required for submission of payment and rules in place. Interestingly, there was a page that equates to the equivalent of the Academy Trust Handbook

These records show us that back then, just like now, support staff played an essential role in education. 

Progression and professionalisation 

And 100 years later, in the 1980s, the Education Reform Act introduced local management of schools. This led to schools employing their own staff to manage functions previously carried out by local authorities. There was an increase at school level in business and commercial functions, requiring solutions to relieve headteachers’ workload. 

Within the independent sector, the bursar’s role had long been established. The title derived from the Latin for ’bag’ or ’purse’, implying a financial role. 

In the early 2000s, the landscape evolved further. A newly embedded Labour government was beginning to implement change. With the reduction in responsibilities of local authorities, the reshaping of school business leadership continued to play a crucial role. 

In 2001, the then education secretary Estelle Morris pledged to train 1,000 bursars by 2006 in what some at the time called the ’quiet revolution’. 

The Certificate in School Business Management (CSBM), a Level 4 equivalent, was born in 2002, and due to its success, was followed quickly by a Level 5 diploma (DSBM) developing into a suite of qualifications extending up to the school director programme at master’s level. Alongside this, the department produced a modular job description that referenced many other aspects of the role other than finance, including human resources (HR), health and safety, facilities, information, IT, marketing and communications. 

These were the beginnings of the evolution of the role of bursar, taking on a new name, school business manager, circa 2007, responsible for a portfolio of complex and legislative responsibilities and not just finance. This is reflected in the recently updated Institute of School Business Leadership (ISBL) professional standards. 

In 2005, ASCL saw the importance of the role of business leadership and opened its membership to school business leaders. Business leaders joined other leaders on ASCL Council, the policymaking body of the association. And, in 2010, ASCL appointed its first business leadership specialist, ensuring that there was specialist knowledge in the ASCL team to improve the service to a growing number of members who were business leaders. 

To the present day, the role and the system it operates in is unrecognisable to that of 1874. Today, it is a well-respected professional career. 

Business leaders are doing just that – leading – and setting a vision and executing it. Some are operating in multi-million-pound organisations, responsible for the deployment of resources and compliance across several schools with thousands of students. And, for many, they are the sole business leader and a part of the school leadership team at the heart of the community it serves. Indeed, some business leaders have now transitioned successfully into CEO roles. 

Whatever their variation of business leader role, all are professionals leading their way through many challenges and essential in enabling the education system to function effectively. ASCL is proud to represent them. 

Where next? 

A recent ASCL pay survey reinforced the fact that there are still further steps to travel to ensure full equity and parity across all business leadership roles in the sector. Let’s continue to push forward in this space and make it happen by raising the profile and recognition of all business leaders. 

Business leaders will continue to play a strategic leadership role in the schools, colleges and trusts in which they serve. Challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for business leaders include playing an important role within the sustainability revolution and transforming systems and processes and ways of working linked to technological advances such as artificial intelligence (AI) – all this, while they continue to lead purposefully and manage a challenging financial landscape. 

Wherever the next 150 years takes the business leader role, one thing is for sure, they will continue to be resilient and ready to take on the world. 

Emma Harrison
ASCL Business Leadership Specialist