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The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Nickii Messer

SBMs: what do you mean 'it’s difficult'?

School business management is no picnic, but what do we mean when we dismiss a challenge as 'difficult'?

I’m constantly wrestling with how school business managers can best equip themselves for the challenges ahead. We know that:

  • budgets will continue to be squeezed
  • maintained schools face academisation
  • single academies face being forced into multi-academy trusts
  • Ofsted will never be less rigorous in their inspections
  • the messages in the 2016 white paper 'Educational Excellence Everywhere' focus relentlessly on improving teaching, learning and standards.

With all of this in mind, my greatest fear is that the success of school business management and leadership could depend on just one word. And that word is difficult.

Challenging, but possible

 If you say that something is difficult, you need to stop and consider what aspect of it actually is ‘difficult’

As a consultant and trainer, one of my key tasks is to help SBMs lead and manage the business of their schools. When I offer simple solutions to their innumerable challenges, I increasingly hear them complain that ‘it’s difficult’.

Having decided to stop getting frustrated by this default response and confront it head on, I looked first at the word itself. The most important point I'd make is that difficult is not the same as impossible! defines difficult as ‘not easily or readily done; requiring much labour, skill, or planning to be performed successfully; hard.’

The definition of impossible is entirely different; ‘not able to occur, exist, or be done.’

So, to complete a difficult task requires skill, planning, labour. It’s challenging, but possible. If you say that something is difficult, you need to stop and consider what aspect of it actually is...

Have you enough time, the necessary skills or the ability to plan? This is the time to confront your demons and be completely honest with yourself.

A typical example of difficulty is performance management for support staff. Staffing costs constitute the most significant part of our expenditure, and I feel frustrated and deflated when I am repeatedly told that support staff performance management doesn’t happen because it’s difficult.

We know appraisal has to happen for teachers, but performance management of support staff is still, arguably (but don’t argue with me about it!) optional.

Many schools still have support staff who are largely unguided, not held to account, underdeveloped and untrained.

I know it’s difficult. I spent many years as a SBM, and know what it takes to introduce and manage an effective performance management policy and process for a large secondary school. However, the benefits are undisputed.

Many schools still have support staff who are largely unguided, not held to account, underdeveloped and untrained

Until we are all able to demonstrate that we use our budget effectively and efficiently, making optimal use of all our resources, then the one thing that really is impossible is to make a realistic and honest claim for more school funding.

Before you say that you don’t (won’t?) do something because it is difficult, ask yourself at least these three questions.

  • Would the school benefit if I did it?
  • Do I have a legal or ethical obligation to do it?
  • What makes it difficult?

From funding and academisation to recruitment and pensions: Matthew Clements-Wheeler checked the pulse of school business management last summer. 

What challenges are you facing as a SBM, and what's your plan of action? Comment below! 

Daring to overcome

There is considerable anxiety among SBMs as to where they see their careers going, if anywhere at all.

The SBMs best equipped for the challenges ahead, deserving the careers they pursue, will be those who use the admission that ‘it’s difficult, because I don’t yet have the skills’ as a prompt to train themselves in such skills.

They will be the ones who say ‘it’s difficult because I don’t yet have the time’ and will organise themselves, prioritising and delegating to free up such time.

They will be the ones who say ‘it’s difficult but I am going to make it happen because it has to’.

Being a school leader, or a senior leader in any organisation, is never going to be easy.

But if you hide behind the word difficult, then expect it to be as such.

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