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A Professional Pitstop

The Journey So Far

There are points in any journey, where we need to stop. It may be to rest, to eat, to recharge or to review our progress. Sometimes we use those stops to reconsider our route in the light of new traffic information, or because we’ve rethought what we set off to find, realising we no longer want it, or we want something different. Sometimes we just set off on the journey for the joy of travelling and exploring new places, with no real destination in mind. But even on those journeys we build in stopping points, to pause, reflect and enjoy the view. Sometimes we stop because we’ve gone the wrong way and need to reverse up or find a new route.

The School Business Leadership profession has been on a journey of its own over the last 3 decades. From its first tentative steps from the garage of Bursardom, it has now travelled the length and breadth of the country, and has visited virtually every nursery, school and college in some way or another. There are now professional pathways and qualifications for School Business Professionals, major education unions recognise and value the role, and many SBLs are operating as executive leaders of education in their schools and academy trusts. That’s a phenomenal achievement.

The Crossroads

But the journey isn’t over. The academies agenda has heralded a new age for education and, much like any revolution, it has brought with it a combination of opportunity, challenge and inevitably, new ways of being. And no corner of education has felt this change more strongly than the School Business Community. We are now operating in new and diverse ways. The profession has seen the emergence of specialist and generalist roles, Finance Directors, Chief Financial Officers and Chief Operating Officers have emerged, working to deliver business support services across single and complex multi academy trusts. And whilst that divergence has brought with it huge opportunities for school business professionals to develop and progress individually, it has also seen gaps emerging in the provision of support and leadership of the profession, as it grows and evolves.

In 2017, in the high seas of change, the National Association of School Business Management took the decision to move to institute status, and the ISBL was born. With a remit to deliver a framework of qualifications underpinned by professional standards, this was a step change for the profession, and ISBL’s re-positioning of itself has inevitably caused gaps to appear in the roadway of our profession’s journey, holes in the foundations where NASBM used to stand. And those holes need to be filled.

The Breakdown Services

In order to identify what is missing, it is necessary to establish what exists. The lion’s share of SBL representation at national level sits with 3 main bodies: ISBL itself, ASCL, and NAHT, both trade unions who represent school leaders, and who include SBLs as part of their membership offer. And whilst each play a part in supporting individuals, none are truly setting out a joined-up agenda to map out how the profession will join together to affect change, to ensure commonality of employment conditions across the tiers of professional remit, or to act as a collective and unified voice to champion change.

ASCL and NAHT have different views on how best to represent their SBL members, neither right nor wrong, but neither is solely dedicated to the profession in the way that they are to that of their teaching membership. Of course, SBL member numbers are far smaller, the expertise more limited and understanding of the specific issues and concerns of the professional far harder to extrapolate. And however well they include SBL members, they will always be something of a bolt-on to a membership that is, in the vast majority, led by and for the teaching profession. That’s not a criticism, it’s just how it is.

We share an enormous commonality with the teaching profession, but we are not the same. We are equally affected by legislative and financial changes to the educational landscape, but the impact on our professional roles is very different. We are contractually separate, conceptually parallel and the representation and support we require is unique and specific. This, to me, is the essence of what is missing at present - someone or something to firmly grasp the steering wheel to campaign on the profession’s behalf in a political arena, and to start driving the bus. ISBL has made it clear that is not its remit, and we must respect that position.

Determining the Destination

As ISBL increasingly concentrates on professional development, the delivery of training courses and the promotion of partnerships in order to maintain its financial viability, it is also at risk of being less relevant to the new emerging breeds of specialist financial and operational school leaders who sit outside or indeed above the generalist professional standards of the more traditional School Business Leader. It has been both enhanced and compromised by the SRMA programme, and is now in the unenviable position of relying on income from the delivery of a programme much maligned and somewhat mistrusted by the industry. A difficult place to be, I’m sure.

ISBL has much to consider, but it is for ISBL, its trustees and its membership to best consider its future path. As a non-member, I find its Mission and Values somewhat unclear and a little contrived, but the Vision? The Vision is fantastic:

“To see school business professionals having the greatest possible positive impact on our education system at every level”.

Whatever our political or professional differences, how could anyone not want to get behind those words? They are the very reason we get up in the morning, our core purpose and the glue that binds the profession together. It is a vision that disregards sector, phase, experience and setting- it strips away everything other than the reason why our profession exists, and it could just prove to be the way to join it back together.

Under the Bonnet

What the SBL profession does have, in abundance, is a huge resource of dedicated and committed professionals who are trained to resolve problems, to support strategic growth and to adapt and react to a changing landscape. That makes a very powerful engine.

We also have a wide variety of networks and groups, clusters and informal gatherings of like-minded practitioners who hugely value and require supportive collaboration. At present the networks are of hugely varied quality and strength, and rely, in the main, on the dedication and commitment of exceptional individuals who volunteer their time to make their networks happen. There is a lack of a national collective agenda, a mismatch of pace, timescale and leadership, but the bones of a strong and powerful collective are already in place. A network with stations, tracks, signalling and timetables, if you like. Wait, hang on, I’m rewriting my analogies as I go here, but perhaps what we have, or what we need to have, is less of a road way and more of fledgling rail network. Perhaps we’ve all been driving our own individual cars, when we should all have been travelling by train?

Let The Train Take The Strain

OK, so rip it all up, the car road thing and put a new map on the table - a rail map, operating on a 2D linear network, with clarity of destinations, regular stops, constantly moving carriages a timetable, collective dependency and a solid infrastructure of stations serving their local community?

Imagine then, if those stations were given a clear direction, a sense of common purpose and the opportunity to form a truly collective voice? Imagine the power of a national network, with representatives communicating up and down and across the lines, feeding back from the regional stations to the terminals and beyond, and giving guidance and support back in equal measure? Imagine if every member of the profession engaged and took part in that network, giving it the power, the membership and the validation to represent, campaign and champion for the tools, resources and representation we need to achieve that remarkable vision?

Mirror, Signal, Manouvre

I’m immensely proud of being a School Business Leader, and I’m immensely proud of the collective good that we have achieved as a profession. As leaders it’s vital that we reflect and rethink our position regularly, and receive criticism and feedback when it comes. I don’t accept that criticism is damaging, I think it’s vital and necessary, and those who take on leadership roles must expect to defend and amend their position at times.

I want to support my colleagues and my profession. I think I do, I hope I do, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a lot of work to do to, all of the time, to adapt, to amend and to fix this big beast of a thing we’re all part of.

So we seem to have reached a bit of a crisis point, an overheating of our collective engines, if you will. Our profession is angry and frustrated with itself and with each other. We’ve stalled. We have two choices. We can wait for our engines to cool down, get back in our cars and keep driving until our faulty radiators pack up again, or we can decide, collectively, to park up, to the ethical thing and get the train. And when we’re on the train we can talk, and we can plan and we can sit back, look out at the landscape and think about our next adventure.

I’m prepared to fork out for a season ticket and to do whatever it takes to put this thing back on track. Who else is along for the ride?


P.S. I do just have to apologise for some of the most awful puns I’ve ever written. I realised, too far in, that my train-nerd knowledge base was distinctly lacking (he’s at work), so I did the best I could. #Sorrynotsorry #trainpuns