A new project is bringing the know-how of secondary school business managers in to networks of primary schools. Louise Staunton explains how her school has shared its expertise.
School business managers are working effectively in many secondary schools at a strategic level, providing direction and leadership for support staff, improving schools, generating income and making savings that can be reinvested in teaching and learning.
However, for heads of smaller primary schools, employing a full-time business manager is often seen as an unaffordable luxury. At Wellacre Technology College, an all-boys comprehensive in Manchester, we have started a project which aims to address this problem locally.
Wellacre already has good links with local primary schools and we have always worked hard to maintain strong relationships with our feeder schools. In September 2008, we embarked on a new initiative, the Wellacre Business Management Support Partnership, providing business management services to more than 20 local primaries, enabling primary heads to delegate aspects of their work to a school business manager (SBM) and so reduce workload.
Specifically, we provide financial support to nine primaries, ground maintenance support to another 11 schools and ICT consultancy advice to one school. Our scheme is one of several being run under the National College for School Leadership's school business director demonstration project.
I came to Wellacre almost six years ago, first as school business manager and for the last year as school business director. I am a member of the senior leadership team and now manage the two SBMs who work with the primary schools, plus support staff.
Prior to becoming involved in the NCSL project we were already offering service level agreements for grounds maintenance to a number of primaries. Extending this to the realm of financial and leadership support seemed a natural progression.
Even so, before starting work, we carried out a lot of initial research with local primaries, talking to headteachers to understand their needs and drafting initial service level agreements tailored specifically to the needs of each school.
To present the idea to our local primaries, we held an initial meeting detailing our strategic plan and what we would be doing each term at our partnership schools. This gave everyone an agenda and aims and objectives to work to, plus a clear understanding that the support we offer is not intended to compete with that from the local authority, but to complement it and to provide strategic leadership.
I appointed a primary SBM, who has a wealth of experience as a school finance officer, to work with the nine schools for which we provide financial services support. The work with them has involved a number of consultations, documenting and understanding the strengths and weakness in the business management function of each school. We then produced action plans with recommendations based on the good practice in place at Wellacre.
Value for money
In the first term, we carried out activities such as an analysis of contracts and suppliers to see whether alternative quotations for services could result in more competitive pricing. We tendered for all the schools' insurance contracts, gaining both financial savings and increased cover. It involved meeting a number of insurance providers and negotiating with them to achieve value for money.
In addition, we carried out financial audits and assessed internal controls and banking functions. We have trained a number of support staff in schools to use their financial management systems more effectively, saving them some £2,000 on the cost of private training courses, and have helped a number of the schools to complete the Financial Management Standard in Schools (FMSiS) using templates we developed. We have also been able to help with ICT procurement, negotiating discounts from our approved suppliers and passing on the savings to our primary partners.
As part of our service to schools, we act as clerk and provide minutes for finance committees. It relieves school governors and headteachers of another administrative task and enables us to establish good working relationships with the governing body.
A number of support staff at Wellacre are actively involved within the project and it provides them with useful career and professional development opportunities. For example, our ICT support staff are carrying out ICT audits at our partnership schools and providing recommendations for improvement. These audits and the restructuring of ICT functions in two schools have saved about £4,000 on the cost of full infrastructure audits.
I act as mentor for both our primary school business managers, providing them with direction and a robust system to work to. Karen Smyth, our most experienced SBM, is completing the Diploma in School Business Management and Dawn Mansfield, our newly appointed SBM, is due to start the Certificate in School Business Management in October.
I meet Karen and Dawn every week to discuss particular issues in the primary schools, general queries and also headteachers' concerns. We use this time to share ideas and discuss each school's developments. We document our actions and minutes from our meetings once a month and have found it to be an effective means of communication as a team and something that helps to keep us focused on the tasks at hand. The meetings are also an opportunity for us to discuss the quality of service to the primary schools and how it can be maintained.
The partnership project has produced several positive outcomes so far. Most significantly, we have been able to free up primary headteachers' time, allowing them to focus on teaching and learning, and have provided them with options and advice to enable them to make the best decisions for the pupils and the school.
In addition, the targeted support in areas such as finance, personnel and IT, as well as our proactive approach, has certainly had an impact on schools' management and governance.
From Wellacre's viewpoint, the project reinforces the community aspects of our role as a technology college and National Support School. There are also the intangible benefits of working with local primary schools, such as building community cohesion - essential if schools are to work more closely to achieve the best possible outcomes for pupils.
For me personally, it has been a really good opportunity to develop my role within and beyond the school. But the remit of the SBM role itself has expanded to encompass a wide range of disciplines and so raised the professional standing of the role across the schools.
Finally, our partnership is proving to be an effective mechanism for distributed leadership. Each of our schools now has access to an experienced and qualified SBM but there is also the added benefit of access to the expertise of the leadership team in a larger secondary school, if needed.
The primary schools have had to learn to trust staff from the larger secondary school who are working with them in their schools. But it has paid dividends in terms of the support that headteachers have been given and all our schools are extremely positive about the partnership and recognise the benefits it brings.
Louise Staunton is school business director at Wellacre Technology College, Manchester.
© 2013 Association of School and College Leaders