The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Viner

The coming of age of the school business manager

John Viner returns to the starting blocks with a focus on what has happened in the increasingly professional world of SBMs.

The professionalism of the school business manager (SBM), with its high expectations and high accountability is in significant contrast to its amateur beginnings and it may be of interest to SBMs to appreciate just how far we have come.

It was the 1988 Education Reform Act that fundamentally changed the way schools were managed. Up to then, every financial decision had to be passed through the local education office. Then suddenly, not only did we have the National Curriculum in all its multiplicity of folders, but we suddenly had LMS – Local Management of Schools.

The old LEA-led system was ponderous and reflected a time when schools had far fewer non-teaching staff than they do now and when they were not responsible for any financial decisions save for spending their annual books, stationery, apparatus and equipment (BSA&E) allowance. And even then bills were paid, not by the school, but by being checked by the school and passed to the LEA for payment. As I said, it was ponderous. Suppliers hated it because it took ages to get paid.

From the school’s perspective, there were some definite advantages. It seems almost unreal that, when we needed a supply teacher, I could just call the divisional education office and they would send me one! Or that, as headteacher of a tiny village school with a FT teaching commitment, I could book myself onto a whole year’s day-release horticulture course at the county’s rural science centre and have supply cover provided. Ah, those were the days.

Early experiments

The impact of LMS was huge and, looking back, it’s a wonder we got though it with the paucity of guidance and lack of experience at our disposal. Speaking from the perspective of a primary headteacher, I found my governors were very supportive but clueless. We were a junior school adjacent to an infants school so, in what was an early version of federation, we jointly appointed a budget manager. That was the preferred post title for many primary schools, others had finance officers.

Most secondary schools and some forward-thinking primaries, seeing the potential of the role, called them bursars. The school budget manager was a much later evolution.

Our budget manager, like many similar appointees, had a background in commerce and had soon introduced us, not only to chequebook accounting, but also to placing capital on the money markets. This was valuable experience but she also had to learn to work with SIMS and not with Sage for, unless they were moving from another school clerical role, none of these early entrants to a growing field, came with experience of school systems.

 It’s a wonder we got though it with the paucity of guidance and lack of experience at our disposal

For these commercially trained colleagues, there came the frustration of very close control of our so-called autonomous budget by a nervous LEA, afraid we would fritter the money on cigarettes and whiskey and wild wild living.

The exceptions to this were the new grant-maintained schools, those early predecessors of the academies programme who, cut free from LEA restrictions, found that they could successfully manage their whole budget without always running decisions past faceless bureaucracy.

From clerk to leader

The journey to professionalising this role had its roots in those early, experimental days. In 1997, the developing network of school bursars was formally incorporated into the National Bursars Association (NBA)

Just over a decade later, in recognition of what was now a much more complex role than the simple budget manager, the NBA rebranded to become the National Association of School Business Management (NASBM). This move reflected the increasingly pivotal and strategic role of the school business manager, not as simply a clerical position, but as a leadership one.

By 2014 the National College for Teaching and Learning (NCTl) had produced not only a competency framework for SBMs but also three levels of certification, from Certificate to Advanced Diploma.

In 2015 the NASBM published a set of professional standards, which built on the NCTL work and sat alongside the Teachers’ Standards, published in 2012, and the National Standards of Excellence for Headteachers, also published in 2015.

The Standards defines six main professional disciplines of school business management.

  • Leading Support Services
  • Finance
  • Procurement
  • Infrastructure
  • Human Resources
  • Marketing

The standards for each discipline are set out in a progressive way, allowing for them to be both a framework for professional development and for performance management. They are underpinned by six ‘behaviours’ and it is more by reference to these than the different disciplines, that we can understand the complexity of the role.

The ‘essential personal behaviours’ a SBM needs to demonstrate are as follows.

  • Change catalyst
  • Decision maker
  • Skilled negotiator
  • Collaborative
  • Resilient
  • Challenger


All this is a far cry from our budget manager appointed to negotiate the perils of LMS, although, as we have seen, the roots clearly lie there.

Optimus carried an interview with Stephen Morales, CEO of NASBM, launching the 2015 standards. Morales recognised the work that the NCTL had already done in identifying the competencies needed by SBMs but pointed out that they did not drill down deeply enough into the specialist areas identified by NASBM.

The final step in the professionalisation of the SBM came in 2017, when the NASBM became the Institute of School Business Leadership (ISBL). Institute status confirms that the school business manager has truly come of age and the role is every bit as professional as the highly qualified and skilled specialists working in education.

More from Optimus

From firefighter to trailblazer: strategic planning for school business leaders

Fairer funding or financial catastrophe? Stephen Morales on challenging the status quo

A day in the life of a SBM

Similar Posts

John Dabell

Helping school staff cope with the cost-of-living crisis

What can schools do to help their staff with rising costs? John Dabell offers some suggestions. The cost-of-living crisis is having a significant impact on families with children. Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, Brexit and austerity have all contributed to the cost-of-living. This is also having an...
Elizabeth Holmes

After Covid-19 – is there a catch in catching up?

Elizabeth Holmes explores debates around catching up, funding, and the potential for education recovery. One thing that we can (probably) all agree on is that the picture of teaching and learning throughout the pandemic has been mixed at best. While some schools were able to switch between school...
Sue Birchall

School funding reform: welcome relief or wishful thinking?

The government's promise of more investment in schools is welcome news to SBMs, but Sue Birchall thinks the proof is in the pudding. Never one to turn my nose up at more money, imagine my delight at the secretary of state for education, Justine Greening’s announcing that there will be even more...