The insider secrets of school business management by @SBM365

Full title: The 7 Principles of Not-So-Public Life : the insider secrets of school business management


Many years ago, back in the days when the government supported my profession by adequately funding it (I’m not bitter), I was taking the Certificate of School Business Management, or it might have been the Diploma, I forget - the memories are hazy and the vodka in the National College bar was plentiful. Anyway, I digress. One of the research topics was to read and underline important bits of The 7 Principles of Public Life, then follow it up a billion word Personal Development Plan (remember those?), a Powerpoint presentation, and then bake a metaphorical set of 7 identical cupcakes to demonstrate how we, as aspiring School Business Leaders/Directors/Oligarchs would apply those 7 principles to our own professional context.

In true catholic grammar school girl style, I did no studying at all, left it all until 5 seconds before the assessment deadline and rapidly churned out a piece wholly reliant on natural technique, an adequate vocabulary of 4 syllable words, and a heavy dependency on the coursework marking scheme for any sense of structure. Again in true grammar school style, the minute the assessment was submitted, I promptly forgot everything I had crammed, and never opened that beautifully highlighted and pristinely bookmarked lever arch file again. I still have it in my office, some 12 years later, still unopened, but the bright pink flowery folder deflects somewhat from the death-eater dull of the grey VAT Return folder it sits alongside.

Unopened that is, until now. Following a Local Authority shot-across-the-bows email circular reminding all local government employees about their responsibilities to keep all public expression of opinion zipped during the pre-election purdah period, I was prompted to:

a) shorten my sentences, and

b) revisit the 7 principles to make sure I wasn’t going to be publicly hoisted by my own social media petard.

Now, having revisited those 7 principles, and my own eager, naive, desperate for an ‘excellent’ pass responses to them, I thought it would be timely to update my personal reflections on my achievements in those areas, having lived the career I then aspired to.

1. Selflessness

Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.

Well, of course, in theory that’s obvious, but it probably wouldn’t have been in the public interest to tell them about the time I had to send my site manager and his deputy out to our groundsman’s house go rescue him from his own toilet. Or the time the whole school was evacuated because the Maths department had a toast fest under the smoke detector. Or the training programme for caretakers that includes sending them to the builders merchant for a long stand and a tin of elbow grease. There are also some job applicants whom it would have been in the public interest to employ, just to keep them off the streets, but for whose lives I feared, should we have decided to offer them haven. There is a place for everyone in this world, but sometimes, that place is a long, long way away from me. So generally yes, I act in the public interest, but sometimes the public would be better off not knowing the precise detail.

2. Integrity

Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work…

I work with public money, I absolutely accept that responsibility and welcome anyone to come and inspect my financial records at any time. But can I hand on heart say I’ve never been influenced? Hell no. I hereby confess that I am far more likely to book supply staff from an agency that send me chocolate muffins than from one who sends me a branded pen and coaster set. Did I once decide on an energy contract on the basis of cupcakes? Possibly. Am I more likely to open a product catalogue if it looks like there a Kitkat inside? I couldn’t comment. I will admit that I once added a supplier to a tender list on the basis of the colour of their marketing (pink and green) though, so if you’re a supplier trying to get my attention, don’t send me coasters, I’ll frisbee them out of the window. Tins of mini mints or those stick-on fluffy bugs won’t cut it either, or a mouse mat of all things. To get past my recycling bin and onto my desk, you’ll need to have more than 65% cocoa solids or at the very least a sparkly pen that lights up. I’m from Essex after all. Do your research.

3. Objectivity

Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.

Yes, yes, yes, of course we must, but it’s my job to filter that evidence and do the merit thing. So, if I present a list of possible ways forward to SLT or the Governing Body, you can be damned sure I’ve filtered it to include only those options of which I already approve. Standard SBM procedure is to pick three possible options:

a) the cheapest, most awful option, with a commentary peppered with keywords like ‘adequate’ and “satisfactory’

b) The option we want, beautifully illustrated with positive-coloured graphs and a budget plan complete with off-set opportunities to convince one and all that they’ll actually be better off and possible even more pleasantly fragranced if they CHOOSE THIS ONE

c) the super-expensive option that every the most financially flamboyant Headteacher couldn’t, in all conscience, sign off.

Options a) and c) are there purely for ballast and to ensure that all parties can feel justified in their choice of your preferred option. After all, there’s no point in presenting a stupid idea and wasting everyone’s time now, is there?

4. Accountability

Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.

Blah blah, audit, HMRC, Ofsted, HSE, JCQ any of them can turn up at any time and we’ll show them anything they ask to see. But in every school there are the bits you won’t see, the rooms that aren’t on the published map, and whilst the inspectors are roaming the corridors, they won’t spot the secret invisible SLT ninjas following along behind them to see where they’re going next. Nor will they see the caretaker stood in a cupboard by the fire panel silencer button, just in case year 11 take it into their head to set the alarm off. And no-one, not even the Head, will know about store cupboard under the stairs that’s holding 200 boxes of rectal thermometers you accidentally ordered by getting a digit wrong on the product code. Still they’ll come in handy one day, and they’ll never lose their value. If no one ever asks how many you have in stock, no one will ever need to know the answer. Remember, aspiring SBMs, it can only be scrutinised if it is available for scrutiny.

5. Openness

Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.

My decision making is pretty transparent. And actually, I’m pretty good with ‘open’ too. Occasionally my ‘open’ can border on ‘forthright’, and my ‘transparent’ has hints of ‘glacial’ but so far I’ve gotten away with it. The SBM role is all about transparency, but the skill is actually in holding back your most honest thoughts - particularly where HR processes are concerned.

Get a bunch of SBMs together, add gin (or at least a decent Earl Grey) and you’d be genuinely shocked at some of the situations we have to accommodate - the member of staff asking for a day off to mourn their dead gerbil, the one who requested a day off for religious observance on St Patrick’s day and the many and varied ‘creative’ requests for resources you couldn’t imagine (inflatable rocketship or fully functioning metal chicken, anyone?). But don’t worry, we’re also very good at policy-writing and insurance procurement, so all important arses will be adequately covered. Transparency is, after all, a spectrum. Think of it as the beauty filter on the SnapChat of life.

6. Honesty

Holders of public office should be truthful.

Here you go, this is honest. Right here. But if you want an SBM to give you a direct answer, be sure you ask exactly the right question. To an SBM, in difficult times, honesty also comes with a healthy dollop of tact. When that nightmare member of staff (you know the one) pops in to ask if you think they should apply for the position you know they stand no change of even being shortlisted for, you tell them that of course they can apply, if they think they meet the requirements of the role. Then you ask them about their longer term goals and gently steer them to perhaps consider how the wider world might benefit from their unique skill set - the circus maybe, or an oil rig just off northern Scotland. In financial terms, honesty is also best served with a large dash of creative spice. So when asked by the Wellbeing lead if the school can afford to take all staff on a weave-your-own-lute experience, your honest answer might not always be the best. Instead, a carefully selected list of alternatives might be required:

a. Maybe not this year, unless you could manage to fundraise for it?

b. Can’t really afford it I’m afraid, but look, here’s a lovely collection of coasters we could give out as free gifts. I’ve even got some free pens and mouse mats here too and some of those cute sticky bugs that you can put on your computer. No really, they’re yours, take them all, it’s my pleasure. And have the mints for yourself.

c. Well, that’s a lovely thought, but how about we consider nurturing and supporting local talent instead? Sandra in PE has a neighbour who does face-painting - how about we have a ‘face-paint your inner animal’ hour in the staff room instead? I’ll supply the babywipes.

So honesty is all well and good, but treat it like vanilla essence. One very small drop is usually all you need.

7. Leadership

Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.

Yep, that’s a School Business Manager. Actively seen to be exhibiting principles left, right and centre. In the corridors, in the staffroom, in emails, letters and policy documents everywhere. Robustly, you might say. In fact I might get some little badges made up of the first 6 principles so I can wear the one I’m focusing on that day. But there’s one place where none of those rules apply. In my office, after 4.30pm, then it’s a place of sanctuary, and anyone contained within it is therefore exempt for any prosecution. During that impunity hour anything can be said. Need to unload your innermost thoughts on that member of staff with the really irritating habit? That parent so rude you almost hit the reply button to the draft email you wrote in anger? That Governor who has no clue how long it took you to pull together that enormous piece of work, but who managed to comment only on the missing comma in paragraph 34b? Then this is the place to come.

Remember that catholic school upbringing? It left its mark and I have to admit I do run a pretty impressive confessional. However I’m also Essex through and through so if you need to just come in a swear very loudly and for a long time, I can help with that too. I also have a fine set of voodoo dolls, just for decoration, natch.

So I think the National College would be OK with my personal interpretation of that particular piece of work, 12 years on. I’ve got a certificate somewhere to prove I cut the ethical mustard all those years ago, and I guess taking a leadership qualification is much like taking a driving test. You might not remember the stopping distance at 70mph on a wet motorway, but you sure as hell know how to protect your back bumper from a boy racer in an bright orange Fiesta who has designs on your piece of the carriageway, furry dice or no furry dice.

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