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

Sue Birchall

Dawn of MAT or: the evolution of the SBM

The old days of school business management are gone, but not forgotten. Sue Birchall looks at the history of this complex role.

With the announcement of an election and the subsequent freeze on publishing the response from the grammar school consultation process, the education sector – and the future of the school business manager (SBM) – has been thrown into turmoil once again.

The pre-election ‘purdah rule’ means that all consultations and responses are on hold until after the new government is elected. A new government could herald a change of direction - we'll wait and see.

I have worked in most phases of education including maintained, foundation and academy and had a variety of job titles, the current being finance manager/controller in a relatively large multi-academy trust. 

Looking back, it's interesting to note how quickly the role has changed.

From business to finance

When I first became a SBM back in the dark ages (2002, to be exact), the role was not yet well-established. I joined the Certificate of School Business Management (CSBM) in one of its early phases, and advanced to a degree of which I am very proud.

Back then, the role of SBM was posited as a senior manager who worked with the headteacher to handle all a school’s business functions. But as time passed, I saw the number of jobs that fell under the title of SBM increase steadily across the sector.

The National Association of School Business Managers (NASBM) and National College worked to establish clear parameters for the role and devise training programmes.

I saw the number of jobs that fell under the title of SBM increase steadily across the sector

Eventually, it became the norm for a SBM to hold or at least be working towards the minimum starting-level qualification of the CSBM on appointment. 

Nevertheless, the complexity of the role was reflected in the pay ranges that were on offer; a national pay strategy for the profession remains to be established. Whether this is a viable option in the current climate remains to be seen, but I feel that with so much variation in the role, this may prove difficult.

A benchmark for your role

With the stewardship of its current CEO, NASBM has gone a long way to construct a professional development framework from which all SBMs can benefit, the success of which depends largely on whether it is used by schools and academies.

The framework encompasses all of the criteria and necessary skills for a ‘whole’ SBM, by which I mean a more traditional whole school manager role. It can be used for posts that have been split into specific responsibilities such as finance, useful to define responsibility and a great tool to benchmark yourself as a SBM.

See the links below to find out more about the core skills for school business leadership.

The arrival of the academy programme heralded a new ‘business age’, with all the requirements of industry. The swiftness of academisation (uncommon for a government policy!) has led to some disparity of structure.

The arrival of the academy programme heralded a new "business age", with all the requirements of industry

I took a post as the finance manager within a multi-academy trust, as the traditional responsibilities of the SBM within the organisation had been divvied up. This is often the case in academies, where finance, HR and premises management can be assigned to separate roles.

The role is quite different to my previous posts, largely due to the financial regulations and requirements that being an academy demands. I have used the experience to learn new skills and update some old ones while ‘living’ quite differently!

The fragmentation of the role has meant I've had to relinquish my control of the school's business side. As one cog in a much larger machine (depending on the structure of the MAT), my responsibilities have become more specific.

Sadly not a lighter workload, just a different one!

Fresh perspectives

So, how close does this change leave us to the 'vision' for SBMs that inspired veterans like myself to join the profession back in the day?

I welcome the fact that professionals from other industries now look to work in the sector as the role has become more business-focused. After all, the education sector has often benefited from new perspectives.

Is this the death-knell for traditional school business management? Only time will tell.

Having decided that I’m an adequate finance manager but a much better SBM, I’m holding out for a role as well suited to my ideals as to my skills. 

But for the profession itself, the road ahead is uncertain.

Strategic business leadership

SBMs have evolved from back office fixers to strategic masterminds, now expected to lead the decision-making process and secure the best financial outcomes for their organisation.

Our series of webinars covers the core competencies SBMs should look to prioritise in their CPD - from delegation to difficult conversations!


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