Opportunity Knocks – there’s more we can do with a funding crisis than just complain about it.

An ex-colleague researching the current issues in education recently asked me for a non-teaching SLT comment on the key issues/priorities facing the profession at present. As an experienced school leader whose remit sits beyond the classroom and with an objective, perhaps less emotional, view of teaching today, here’s my response:

We’re skint

Yes, school funding is in a miserable place right now, but we’ve seen this coming for years. Financially astute schools have been surviving the withdrawal of adequate funding by opening their war chests and selling the family silver piece by piece. Now, having been forced to clear out our rainy day pots, spend our contingencies on the gas bill and abandoning all hope of any preventative or strategic planning, we’ve reached the start of the financial year where even the wealthiest maintained schools and academies are shaking their purses for the last coppers and nothing is coming out. The transitional protection of phased withdrawals of funds have ended, real time cuts have bitten and the impact of those non-funded hidden pension and cost of living increases have taken their full toll.

I have a wide network of Bursar/Business Manager/Finance Director colleagues and I don’t know a single one who has been able to balance their in-year budgets this year. The education industry is now fully realising what we, as a profession, have been telling them for half a decade, and the powerhouses of the NUT, ASCL and the Education press are now unleashing their armory at the DfE to fight the funding battle. Good stuff. Good luck.

Man the Lifeboats

In the meantime, the SBMs and their non-teaching teams still have to keep their leaky ships afloat as best they can. And this is where we need to lift our eyes from our spreadsheets, put aside those entrenched prejudices and fears of local competitors, rankings and league tables and start collaborating with like-minded schools sharing the same problems. Collaboration is the absolute opportunity and the only real current solution. As schools, we share the same agenda, the same local problems, the same judgements, and ultimately the same ambitions, so let’s work together to stay afloat. After all, the best way to secure a small leaky raft is to lash it to another one to make both stronger and more stable.

The Circle of Life

The absolute crisis we all share is in recruitment. At all levels. Setting aside the reasons why and the implicitnmorality, but looking purely at the budgetary issues- the most effective and sustainable financial model is one where staff enter the school as NQTs, progress up the ranks, spend a while at UPS then move on, being replaced by a new recruit at NQT level. Schools can no longer afford to have those long-serving HoDs who have reached the top of their game and who don’t intend to move up to Leadership roles,who may have remained on UPS 3 with a large TLR for many years. Regardless of the skills and dedication of those essential and experienced colleagues, financial sustainability relies on staff turnover, as does effective CPD programming, progression planning, innovation and professional interest.

What we find now is that some HoDs are not moving on, some preferring to stay in a relatively safe place awaiting retirement, rather than test the turbulent waters elsewhere, causing the upcoming rising stars to move on elsewhere. Combine that with the absolute famine that is the recruitment market at the moment and you have a stagnant, expensive and ineffective staffing model which cannot be sustained. Many schools are struggling to appoint to fundamental roles across all core subjects, instead relying on mediocre supply and a band-aid approach to timetabling to get them through a term at a time. Schools and HoDs are unable to operate strategically because of the basic lack of skilled professionals., Firefighting is a constant.

Schools must reduce costs but cannot afford redundancy payments. They cannot recruit so are massively overspending on advertising and supply, both budgetary areas which add no value to the school’s strategic aims and certainly do not drive forward school improvement.

So what can we do?

Now there’s the question.  Aside from the obvious efficiency savings that any decent SBM/Bursar/FD will already be making, schools need to rethink their timetables to make sure they have fully maximised their resources – so no ‘trapped’ free periods, deploy staff to their full allocation, teach out of subject area if necessary (at KS3). Teach 2nd subjects, re-jig class sizes – all decent Heads are already doing all of these things, that’s Strategic Financial Planning 101.

But the real solution lies in local collaboration with other schools. A proper joined-up approach to sharing staff, CPD and timetables will allow for a much leaner model, creating opportunities for joint CPD, cross-campus working, greater career progression routes, shared best-practice, allowing for minority GCSE subjects to be timetabled together to allow for  students of 2/3 local schools to combine to form a viable group, along with an extended offer (e.g one school runs German, another runs Latin, another runs Spanish), etc.

Cover supervisors, pastoral staff, site staff, IT technicians are shared across sites, deployed where needed; advertising is across schools so one advert for a consortium rather than 3 or 4 for similar posts. It works across models, so just for formal MATs but anywhere where local schools are easily accessible. As the ability of Local Authorities to deliver support services to schools diminishes into invisibility, so alliances and partnerships between schools are springing up.  And no there is absolutely no need to academise if that’s not the right model for you, there are a whole host of other models where informal, semi-formal or make-it-up-as-you-go-along models can work just as well. How many Primary Heads spend time on the phone to the local plumber, or signing low value checks, or trying to work out if they’re being ripped off by a local IT provider? All time spent out of classrooms, when there is a whole team of dedicated professionals doing an efficient and skilled job at managing all of those areas in the local secondary school up the road. Secondaries can support primaries with support services at a fraction of the cost of buying it in, and that’s not to mention the economies of scale that are achievable through the bulk-procurement options of local collaboration.

Trust me, I’m a Business Manager

It’s a difficult sell though, to SLTs and Heads who are naturally protective of their skills base and might feel threatened by ‘other school’s staff’ working in their offices. And perhaps more so for Governing Bodies, who have been trained, after years of league-table conditioning so see their local neighbours as rivals rather than colleagues. But if the industry can come together to rally for more funding, it can also come together to  create its own solutions.

On a final note, spare a thought for the impact of all of this on non-teaching staff. Most schools facing budget cuts will be looking to reduce their support staffing before they take teachers out of classrooms. Support staff know this and are waiting to see if they’ll still have jobs come September. (Well, some are waiting, some are leaving education for the security of the business world). Already working for significantly lower salaries than they would attract in business, with most only getting paid for 39 weeks out of 52, our dedicated and equally committed school support staff feel forgotten and sidelined in the national teacher stress/workload discussions.

Expanding Opportunities

Most schools operate a very pyramidical support staff structure, with almost no progression opportunities beyond middle management. Imagine, then, the opportunities that cross-school collaboration could bring to the dedicated and talented Network Manager who might now have an chance to create and mastermind a network and IT infrastructure over multiple sites, or to the fantastic but frustrated Catering Manager who might now be able to roll out a profit-sharing, high quality catering service to local primary schools. That is how schools will retain their finest professionals, and also attract expertise into education from business. Income generation isn’t just about selling school ties, it’s about a fully co-operative approach to local delivery, developing skills, nurturing talent and turning threats into opportunities; taking those DfE lemons and turning them into fair-trade, locally sourced, organic lemonade.

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A Chronic Condition

My daughter has Type 1 Diabetes. That’s the one where your pancreas fails completely for no apparent reason. It’s nothing to do with your diet or weight, it’s the one where you have to test your blood throughout the day, eat sugary snacks when your blood sugars drop, even if you don’t want them, at 3 o’clock in the morning,  and inject yourself with insulin every time you eat. Poorly managed, it can cause a whole host of really horrible things to happen. Well managed, it means a strict regime of carb counting, injections, blood testing, hypo treatments and constant vigilance. It’s an absolute bastard of a disease for a child to live with. If I met it in the street, I’d punch its lights out.

But there are no such options with Type 1, you have to live alongside it, however much you hate it. We’ve lived with it for 5 years now, that’s approximately 11,000 times my daughter has had to stab herself in the finger to test her blood, and about 9,200 insulin injections. About a third of those have happened at school. When she was first diagnosed she was in year 4 at primary school, and a whole raft of training was launched at us and at her primary school staff. They had visiting nurses, new policies, training sessions, teaching materials, it was almost overwhelming, but they accepted the whole lot, without question and just got on with it.

As a parent, sitting frantically at the edge of a hospital bed as you’re told by a stranger that your child has a life-changing chronic medical condition, you make a vow, there and then, to protect your child and keep them close to you, so you can shield them from whatever dangers they will face. You learn everything there is to learn about the condition, your life is changed instantly, but you dump your old way of being in an instant and start packing whatever you might need for your family to set off on a slightly different course than the one you had planned. But pretty soon you realise that, however much you want to stay glued to their side, within a matter of days you’re going to have to hand them over to the care of virtual strangers.

The Handover

Sending your newly-diagnosed child off to school on their first day back after diagnosis is utterly horrifying. However much training staff may have had, as a parent you can never quite believe that anyone other than you can care for your child properly. You’ll be forgiven for being the nightmare parent you swore you’d never be, for the half hourly phone calls, the over-protective written notes in lunchboxes and the triple checking of instructions before anything other than the simplest of school activities.

But, gradually, you learn to loosen the vice-like grip a little, and you start to accept that your child is still alive at 3.00pm every day, that nothing bad happened, and that the school will call you if they have any concerns. They’ll take your advice and they’ll support your child, they’ll work with you and they’ll be absolutely steadfast in their determination to ensure that your child has every possible opportunity to take part in every single activity they can provide. It still astonishes me, the extra effort the school willingly go to, to include her in everything, without question. The extra training sessions, the extra risk assessments, policies, first aiders, snacks, visits to the medical room, work set during hospital stays, the care and concern that school staff show to my daughter, and to me, every minute of every day.

At what cost?

And all of this for nothing – schools don’t get a penny of extra funding to care for children with medical conditions, for diabetics, epileptics, asthmatics – they just absorb it all; the cost of staffing and running a Medical Room, the cost of first aid courses, the cost of supply to cover staff attendance at those courses, the cost of the phone calls home, the policy writing and review, the admin which makes sure that all relevant staff are kept fully up to date with changes to care plans and regimes. The extra eye that all school staff place on those physically vulnerable children, when they battle through normal childhood illnesses made so much more complex by their underlying conditions. The impact of the nightmare of teenage years, anxiety, relationships, hormones, even the weather, on their compromised immune systems and fluctuating well-being.

I worry that soon, as every single part of school life is having to be scrutinized for efficiency and worth, some schools may have to start limiting the quantity and quality of care they are able to offer. Whilst no one will want to say it out loud, there will be schools who will have to consider those costs very carefully indeed, and where pastoral and support staff may have to be sacrificed, so might the school’s ability to provide the full wrap-around care that currently comes as standard. As staffing hours are cut, so might the chance for that member of staff to take that extra minute to check in with their vulnerable kids, maybe missing a sign or a clue that all wasn’t as well as it could be that day.

I’m lucky, I work at the school my daughter attends, so I’m always helicoptering around, and my daughter’s team couldn’t do more to help her. I hope every other child around the UK is just as well looked after. But I worry, truly, that unless school funding is adequately addressed, the cracks will start to show still further, to the point where children are put at risk.

In the meantime, I celebrate the education she receives, the care she gets and the opportunities she is given. She’s off to Germany in a few weeks time, on a school enrichment trip where she will have the time of her life. The risk assessment has happened, the staff who will be caring for her are trained and prepared. I can’t say I’m not worried about her, of course I am, but I can say I’m happy to hand over my most precious possession to them and not sneakily book an extra ticket in the hotel next door, just in case.

I salute those staff. It’s hard enough being a parent of one or two children and managing a serious medical condition on a trip away from home, but I can only imagine the commitment and dedication it takes to look after one in a bunch of 30, where none of them are your own. The additional responsibility of caring for a child with a chronic condition, on a trip abroad, with the possibility of overnight medication and the unknown factors of climate, food and language, is enormous. Even those Cath Kidston Supermums who can juggle cake baking, museum visits, a party of twelve 5 year olds and the simultaneous construction of a cheese-based replica of the Houses of Parliament would baulk at that one, but teachers are expected to take it all in their stride, and they do.

So thank you support staff and teachers everywhere, who do so much more than it says on the job description, so much more than it says on the First Aid tin.




Take Care of Your Caretakers and They’ll Take Care of You

Semantically, Caregiving and Caretaking are diametrically opposite, one gives care and one takes it, but in a school setting it’s the object of the care that differs. Caregivers work with children, caretakers work with objects and buildings, or so the theory goes. But the caretakers I’ve come across in my time care deeply about their roles, their schools and everyone in them. Here’s to them.

A very wise Headteacher once told me that if you really want to know a school, spend a day in the Site Office. He was right – one way or another you’ll see humanity in all its forms pass through a school Site Office, along with an awful lot of other stuff. From the grumpy teacher who’s left their ID badge at home, through the Deputy Head who’s locked their keys in their office, to the random hedgehog that year 7 found on the footpath – all of these will find their way to the hub of activity that is the school’s literal engine room.

One of the many things I love about site staff is their stoicism in the face of change. Every new government initiative, every new SLT-led drive, every assembly, every chair, every parents evening, every u-turn and every u-bend has at some point found itself passing through the Site Team’s domain. And whilst they might grumble from time to time (OK, for some it’s a fair amount of the time), they will just get on with whatever needs getting on with. They don’t mind that D16 has changed its purpose from being a Diploma room, an Extended Schools room, a School Sports Co-Ordinator’s room, an EBacc room and now it’s a Pupil Premium room, to them it’s just D16, the one at the end by Maths, with the dodgy radiator. But that doesn’t mean they’re not adaptable; I have very fond memories of discussions on how to arrange the hall chairs into the shape of a dragon for the Head’s new assembly idea, how to pick the perfect fire alarm tone (a whooping wee-yah works best) or how to get an 8′ stone Buddha off the back of a lorry without a forklift and, whilst there might not always be a will, there is always a way. Site Teams can and do fix anything.

There are various forms of Site Team – some travel in packs of three, some operate a conjoined-twin system and others (the most effective ones) a pincer technique, setting off to sweep the terrain like a military machine, arriving back at HQ at spot-on tea break time. But once you pass the test (and, new SBMs and Heads, they will test you, whether you realise it or not) and you’ve been initiated into the Family, you’re in for life. The Site Team Circle of Trust is powerful magic. There are many, many stupid things that I have done that only my Site Teams know about and, whilst they might rib me endlessly about them, I know that my embarrassing secrets and professional indiscretions are safe with them. And that goes both ways of course; the accidental sounding of the fire alarm that was set off by ‘someone’ testing an paint aerosol under the smoke detector,  the golf-buggy lap trials around the school in the summer holidays, the lone-worker man-down alarm that sensed a bodily collapse and summoned a call-out, only to discover a decidedly un-dead evening caretaker asleep in the staffroom.

And then there’s the grapevine. Oh goodness the grapevine. Forget the Staffroom gossip, the real juicy stuff happens in the Site Office. You may not realise it, but the Site Team know whose car stays in the car park on a Friday night, who leaves with whom, who sneaks back to collect their car, bleary-eyed in the same clothes on Saturday morning, they see all. They even know about the secret liaisons in the Archive Room, the sneaky fag breaks behind the PE store and the names of every staff member who sneaks out the door to slope off early when they have an end-of-day free period.

Caretaking teams also have hearts of gold. They will leave no stone unturned in the hunt for a missing piece of coursework, they’ll wait up all night for news of a missing student, they’ll have collections for sick colleagues, and they’ll turn up on snow days to clear the paths ready for the next day even though everyone else gets a day off. And that’s not about overtime, really it isn’t, it’s about caring, deeply, about keeping people safe.  So value your Site Team. They don’t need much, just a Thank You, a mention in the newsletter or a personal visit every now and then. In the world of the blocked toilet and the vomit clean-up call, a complimentary bacon roll or a donated packet of HobNobs can go a very long way.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite Site moments. A few years ago we built a concert hall with a seating balcony. The balcony had a low glass wall with a gate in, which needed a small warning sign to tell users to keep it locked when not in use. We ordered the sign, waiting patiently for it to arrive. Only one problem, the sign manufacturers had made it up in centimeters instead of millimeters. The memory of the gargantuan monoliths that arrived have kept me smiling through many a dark day ever since.


So bless you Site teams everywhere, you really are the beating heart of our schools, without whom, well, without whom we’d all be sat in the car park , waiting for someone to unlock.




































































Opportunities to Shine

I used to work with a wonderful Catering Manager. She, like all good CMs was almost entirely self-managing and only ever really needed my input when it came to testing muffins (I’m something of an expert in my field), VAT (I’m hopelessly inadequate but I know a very nice auditor), or when there was a problem she couldn’t fix. Not that she would ever admit that. She brought me, instead of problems, what she called “Opportunities to Shine”. An Opportunity to Shine is basically where you take a seemingly unsolvable problem, turn it on its axis and try your damnedest to make something positive out of it. It’s a bit like the Pollyanna Principle but without the yellow hair ribbons.

At first I was somewhat cynical (this is my default position, even my Resting Bitch Face has slightly raised eyebrows) and saw this as a thinly-veiled attempt to dump a stinker of a problem on my desk by putting a cherry on the top of it. But, and it’s a big but, there was a challenge in there too, and I can never resist a challenge (unless it’s something stupid involving physical exercise or cleaning up, obvs). Could I take a problem that an excellent middle manager couldn’t resolve, and turn an impending disaster into a positive? How could I resist? The problem was to do with two clashing members of staff who were sniping at teach other across the tills. So instead of hauling them both in for a pre-process chat, I took a pinch of Devious, a drop of Machiavellian and mixed them together with a shimmy of Mary Poppins and came up with a solution. The solution was to put them in a team of two, together, and set the two of them a challenge to sell more whatever-it-wases between them than our finest whatever-it-was seller. After a little initial snarling, they worked so hard not to be the one to let the team down they they sold more between them in one sitting than we usually sold in an entire week. After a week, they were our new dream team and I didn’t hear a murmur of dissent from them again.


Buoyed by the success of my first successful Opportunity To Shine, I started throwing the phrase back at my middle managers who came to me with gripes and problems. It’s not just about bouncing a problem, it’s about a change of mindset; it’s about realising that the solution you need may not be the one you are looking for. Now I realise that sounds like a phrase you might find in a Dumbledore Christmas Cracker, but stay with me. The School Business Leader is very much akin to a political spin doctor – we take the crappiest of situations and try to get the best result we can for our school, be that in terms of doing a Stretch Armstrong act on our funding, putting together a tricky HR settlement or writing a press release which takes the reader away from a story of 25 year 11s found in the village duck pond and introduces them to 25 passionate young nature-lovers communing with wildlife in its most natural and playful community setting.

It took a little while for the Site Staff to get used to the idea, those sh#t-shoveling bastions of the Land Beyond The Buck Stop, but they gave it a go. After a postal strike, instead of looking at 2 day backlog of deliveries to be taken all over the school,  they decided they had an opportunity to visit and say hello to dozens of colleagues, get some healthy exercise and bring countless long-awaited resources to hundreds of eager learners. They turned from grumpy trolls to Santa’s elves overnight – saving Christmas and possibly the universe. It’s just a matter of perspective.

Got a jobsworth technician who will cite every H&S rule in the book to avoid getting the job done? Put them in charge of Health & Safety in their area and just watch the jobs list whizz by.

Got a blocked drain and the regular plumbers can’t get to you? Call the plumber down the road, tell him he’s got one chance to undercut your usual supplier if he can get there in the hour, and he’s got your next 5 call-outs guaranteed.

Got a broken-down oven an hour before lunch service? You’ve got an opportunity to really push the salad bar and hit your healthy eating target.

You see? It’s just about changing your mindset to look for the positives. It’s become something of a mantra for me and right now, given the current educational landscape, there are more Opportunities to Shine out there than there are cowpats in a field of friesians. So call it opportunity, call it spin, call it manipulation, it works. If you can train your middle managers to bring you not only the problem, but the solution and a better permanent outcome, you’ve made the world a better place and everybody wins.

Right, I’m off, I’ve got two ton of goat droppings to list on EBay as organic vegan compost.

Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner

Waking up this morning to read about the latest atrocity in London, my home city. These days I live elsewhere, but nothing can take London out of your heart. When terrorism strikes you blanch at the horror, you read the news stories, watch the Twitter feeds, you absorb the shock, and then slowly, out of the smoke and dust, you see true spirit of London appear again, like a bloodied warrior emerging. The true spirit of London; the taxi drivers taking people to safety, the girls offering their spare room to anyone stranded, the Sikhs offering food and shelter, the reassuring and determined statement from the city’s Mayor and the torrent of praise and respect from one and all for our emergency services.

And then, a little later, comes our true battle mascot, the indomitable British sense of humour, who strides out onto the battlefield to land a knockout punch to the quivering face of cowardice. The city and nation smile at the photo of the bloke with the pint glass running away form the terror but not spilling a drop, the crab with the sword, ready to take on attackers, the memes, the endless memes that show our resilience and fortitude; London and Londoners will not be cowed, not ever.

I spent many years travelling to the West End of London; I sat on a stifling tube train stuck underground for 3 hours between Bethnal Green and Liverpool street when the IRA were bombing our stations on a weekly basis. I walked down Oxford Street when bombs were going off in our high street stores, and I traveled hours out of my way to get home on many occasions when roads and tube lines were closed and suspended. I, and my colleagues and friends, watched 9/11 unfold from a building next door to BBC Broadcasting House, and that afternoon I rode a motorbike home along Regent Street, through Piccadilly, round Trafalgar Square along the Embankment, through the City and around Canary Wharf to get home with pride in my heart and a sense of defiance that I carry with me today.

Londoners never surrender to terrorism. Never once do we stop and hide, never once do we not go into work and never once do we consider anything other than utter and complete defiance. If the tubes are closed, we go to the pub and wait till they open again. If the roads are closed we take the long way round and enjoy the sights and sounds of our beautiful city, if the buses are suspended, we walk along the riverside, under the shadow of Big Ben, safe in the knowledge that our city has withstood so much more than this, and so it will continue to withstand as we stand with it, unabashed and unafraid.

We love you London, from Londoners far and wide, old and new, we stand with you today and tomorrow and always.


My School Journey – Yakob’s Story

Many years ago I got my first job in a school, I was employed as a performance-data-come-everything else  person and it was my first experience of education since I left school myself. It was a tough school in the East End of London, and worlds away from the private convent school I had attended myself. I’d never considered working in education before as I knew I never ever wanted to be a teacher, and I didn’t know there were any non-teaching jobs in schools other than the lady in the office I remembered from my youth.

But these were the early post-Workforce Reform days, where all manner of support jobs were appearing in schools, and the data desert of London education was crying out for an experienced statistician. I got the job, but have to admit I felt a wee bit intimidated by the prospect of being in a building with 800 of the East End’s finest young men. But the job was a fantastic challenge, so I rolled with it.  I never really had a career vocation and slightly envied those who did, but one day I read a piece of student that changed my life forever.

The school produced a weekly newsletter of news and student work, and each week it had a literacy piece entitled “My School Journey”, where it featured a piece of written work from a student detailing their journey to school. It was usually a paragraph or two about what time they got up, the route they took to school and the friends they saw along the way. At the time the school had extremely high EAL, very high mobility and some significant literacy challenges. One week, about 8 weeks after I started there, I was picked up the newsletter and read the latest My School Journey extract, this week written by a boy named Yakob in year 8. This is a paraphrased version of what Yakob wrote:

“I came to London 5 months ago from Bosnia. I traveled with two other people from my village but I don’t know where they are now. I am living with a foster family in London and they are very kind. I get the bus to school every morning and the bus driver always says hello. We are friends now because he helped me when I was new and didn’t know where to get off the bus. I love my school because it makes me feel safe. There are no soldiers. When the soldiers came to my old school they shot my brother and my teachers. I ran home but they had already killed my family as well.

I miss my family very much but I know they would be pleased that I escaped and came to England. My English is getting better but my teacher helped me to write this story down. I will work very hard and get good exams so I can go to college. I want to be a lawyer so I can help people and try and make the world safer. At my new school there are children from all over the world and we are all friends and speak lots of languages together. I would like the world to be like that.”

That was my moment. The moment I knew that I wanted to work in education for ever.  Everyone who works in schools has one. Teachers probably have hundreds. I’ve certainly had many since then, but Yakob was the boy who inspired me to train to become a School Business Manager, so I could play my part in providing safe and supportive places for children to learn and succeed.  Support Staff might not always be recognized for the part they play in our young people’s lives, but there are thousands of us out there, caring just as much, working just as hard, down in the engine room, stoking the boilers, preparing the meals, cleaning the decks, and tending the lifeboats.

So don’t talk to me about the financial burdens of immigration, EAL, mobility, mental health, social care on the education system; they are not burdens, they are pathways along which young people can travel to achieve better, safer, happier lives. Essential pathways that need financial support to survive. We’ll have to wait and see what state education is left in after the general election, but whatever the outcome, schools, and the people in them, will carry on doing our utmost to offer every support we can to any child who arrives at our doors, whatever their journey.

Last I heard, Yakob had sailed through his GCSEs, flown through 6th form college and had trecked off to university to study law.  Bon voyage my friend.

Buckets and Jellybeans. Is it time to put the EBacc back on the shelf?


A couple of months ago my daughter was asked to choose her GCSE options. These are important choices to make when you’re only 12 (our school runs a 3 year KS4) and as a parent you have to worry that your child might be opting themselves out of  future opportunities rather than making informed choices about on which subjects they might want to start focusing. Like any 12 year old, she changes her allegiances and preferences on a daily basis, so asking her to pick her preferred GCSE subjects is a bit like asking her to predict how cheese will be made in the year 3267. If I’d have asked her what career she wanted this time 3 years ago, she would have said she wanted to be in One Direction.  2 years ago she would have wanted to be a Survival Expert (think Bear Grylls in pigtails) , last year it would have been a video game coder and this year it’s a goat herd.

Of course I realise the need to pick GCSE options, there’s no way our current educational pathway structure can permit anything else, but our Edusystem does feel a bit like a series of ways of losing out. At the start of secondary school you get given a bag of jelly beans with loads of different flavours to try. After a couple of years you can pick out the three flavours you don’t really like (aniseed, popcorn and mint, du), then at KS5 you can only pick 3 of your favourites (coconut, watermelon and cherry, obviously) and finally, at about 17, at UCAS time, you have to pick just one flavour jelly bean that you’re going to be stuck with for the rest of your life (Oh no! Watermelon. No! Coconut. No! Cherry. Wait! Why is life so unfair?).

But choose she must, so we, along with similar families all over the UK (and by similar I mean having a child going through options – I realise not all families have an inflatable shark in their kitchen) go along to Options Evening at school and we get to visit all the subject areas and hear about how the Options process works. Good schools do this exceedingly carefully, gently steering the child in a certain direction which will quietly provide them with a collection of matching EBacc buckets, whilst at the same time trying to hide their inherent desire to provide a way of delivering a truly personalized curriculum, with one bucket in the colour the child really wants, together with a spade, some sand, some pebbles and a cocktail stick flag to go on the top. Good educators know that the finest sandcastles need variety, imagination, creativity and seashells. No one wins a sandcastle competition with identically shaped buckets.


But this is what schools are being asked to do. To literally limit children’s options in order to create a way of measuring school performance. The EBacc page on Gov.UK says:

“The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) is a school performance measure. It allows people to see how many pupils get a grade C or above in the core academic subjects at key stage 4 in any government-funded school.”

A school performance measure. Not a way of improving outcomes for young people or a strategy to deliver the very best in education. No, a way of making the business of monitoring schools easier. Isn’t that missing the point somewhat? And whilst I understand the logic behind a balanced curriculum, part of me wants to let the child whose artistic talents are so evident, choose to fill their days with nothing but arts; to let the child who has only ever wanted to be a doctor start following their medical path straight away. The safety net of the balanced bucket approach is OK for the child who doesn’t yet know what they want to do, but even for them, surely they have the right to pick from the broadest range of jelly beans, not just the 5 most popular. After all, someone must like the aniseed flavour, or they wouldn’t make them.

So I explained the bucket thing to my daughter and she made sensible choices; Sociology, German and Geography – broad and balanced, but also absolutely perfect for an alpine goat herd, should her current career plan turn out to be a keeper. If it were down to me I’d have Elvish, Klingon and Parseltongue on the MFL list, and Small Animal Farming, Hot Air Ballooning and Potions listed as Sciences, but then I was lucky enough to have an English teacher as a father, who put creativity, imagination and opportunity into the heart of my childhood.

The EBacc is dull. It stifles the growth of a creative & personalized curriculum and it does a huge disservice to our future geniuses (I want to say ‘genii’). So, whichever government is elected after June 8th, I hope it will allow educational leaders to lead education. We have some of the world’s most creative and passionate teachers and educators in our midst, just think how wonderful our children’s lives would be if we let them do what they know they can.

Jelly bean anyone?

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 with 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 to 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 possibly even more pleasantly fragranced if they CHOOSE THIS ONE

c) the super-expensive option that even 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 from 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 and 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.


When worlds collide. The trichotomy of SATS as a Senior Leader, a parent and a primary governor (with a dash of SEND thrown in for fun)

I have a son who’s 11.  He’s doing his SATS next week. He’s a bright little boy and he’s also autistic, which is his case means he’s got an astounding sense of logic which could give Mr Spock a run for his money, combined with a social detachment which leaves him unable to understand why he needs to (in his words) ‘do yet another stupid maths paper, which will be exactly the same as the billion practice papers we’ve already done, just so some butthead in London can spy on children’. But it’s not all bad in his world. Having SATS next week means he gets to have breakfast at school and there’s even rumours of free bananas, so for him, it’s a transactional win.

SATS has been looming for months, years, and yet I’ve deliberately kept our family approach so light touch that a Butterscotch Angel Delight could survive a journey though the SATS conversations that happen around our dinner table. You might rightly assume that’s because anything approaching pressure would send my autistic boychild in to a tailspin of anxiety and stimming, and that’s partly it. But there’s also a number of other things going on in my machiavellian School Business Manager mind to which I have to admit, and which are bending the line graphs of my parenting plotter all over the place:

  1. SATS are stupid, without question. No system which makes judgements about 11 year olds based on a national 40 minute test should ever have been let loose on society. Anyone with an 11 year will know that their performance, outlook on life, ability or concentration levels can fluctuate wildly depending on the colour of their socks, who they’re sitting next to, what’s  in their lunchbox or how much they want to go to the toilet. As a human being, I couldn’t care less what a child’s SATS scores are. I care if they’re happy, loved, fed, warm and safe.
  2. I have an autistic child. He’s never ever going to be comparable to that statistically ‘normal’ child that exists only in Raise Online and the flaccid imaginations of parliamentary analytical deadheads. Nor do I don’t want him to be. He’s never going to be normal; he’s unique, he’s extraordinary, he’s fabulous. Ordinary would be a massive step down for him. I don’t want my boy tested and judged by that nameless butthead in London. I want him to discover his passions and chase them. I want him to fizz and buzz and fly, not sigh and worry and fall short. His SATS results won’t tell anyone anything about him. You have to meet him to earn that privilege.
  3. But whilst they exist, SATS are the currency of primary assessment with which we have no option but to trade. I’ve lived the life of Chair of Governors of a Primary school. I know how hard it is to show progress at KS2 in a coastal town with significant pockets of deprivation. I know how hard my son’s school have worked to get him to a place where he’s even able to sit still long enough to take a SATS test and write his own answers down himself. They have done an amazing job with him, and I want the school to get a blindingly good set of KS2 results this year. They deserve it. I also want his TA to keep her job after he leaves in July and not have to worry about national funding cuts. Maybe if he does really, really well, her ability to show impact on his educational outcomes might help her out too. She’s a fantastically gifted TA and my son adores her. So a part of me does want him to do fabulously well for them. And for her. And for him, too, of course.
  4. But. And it’s a significant but, he’s coming to the school where I work in September, and I also know that a bright, white SEND boy is data gold dust. I’ve got to admit I have considered that if he doesn’t do so well at KS2, his progress over time to GCSE could be fabulous for my school in 5 years. In SEND stats, at GCSE he’ll probably out-do that mythical ‘normal’ kid because he’ll pick GCSE subjects that he loves, not what he’s forced to do, so he’ll be obsessively passionate  about them (and EBACC will hopefully be dead by then, stabbed mercilessly through its vital organs by a heroic personalised learning programme of gargantuan proportions). And of course, I’ll be in the office along the hall, watching his every move,  quietly manipulating his passage through the school from behind the scenes to get him the best teachers and the best educational opportunities we’ve got. So, if he limps through the KS2 finishing gate, that won’t be the end of the world either, in the scheme of things. It just gets him a better starting block in the KS4 race later on.

Given the choices open to me as parent and educational professional , I’ll do whatever’s best for my boy, without question, but when you find yourself in a place where your 3 worlds collide – parent, education professional and volunteer, it’s sometimes hard to maintain your objectivity. As a working mum in my particular job, having access to funding information, Ofsted criteria and assessment data, sometimes, you can know too much, and yet other times, when you try and make sense of the next number-driven government initiative, it feels like you know nothing at all.

But I do know this, no child has ever had a better life or achieved happiness and success in life through sitting KS2 SATS papers. People change lives; parents, teachers and other committed adults who take time to know the child in front of them, who read the signs and the behaviours of the child themselves, not the statistics on the labels we have to tie to them. So my fabulous little boy and I will drive straight through SATs without stopping or even slowing down, with our fingers stuck firmly in our ears singing “la la la la, we’re not listening”.


Running on Empty – when School Business Managers are no longer able to manage school business.

Loads of schools have someone like me; almost all secondaries, lots of primaries, some specials. We’re the ones tasked with managing the school’s finances and resources – all the non-teaching things that keep the liner afloat. We write the budget, manage the finances, do all the health & safety stuff, we run the facilities, the grounds, the canteen and the cleaning. We’re in charge of recruitment, HR, communications, marketing, insurance, compliance, safeguarding, data, IT, or a combinations of all of those things. All of those massively critical and essential things that happen in schools but which aren’t pedagogical. Call us FDs, SBMs, SBLs, Bursars, you know the people I mean.

I’ve been doing the job a few years now and I like to think I’m pretty good at it. I get a massive sense of achievement in being able to resource great facilities for my schools, so our students have wonderful learning environments and access to all manner of resources. I love to bid for, plan and deliver building projects that expand great provisions, which allow for state-of-the-art technology and inspirational thinking. I hope that some of the projects I’ve worked on have inspired young people to achieve excellence, to have extraordinary learning experiences and to challenge themselves and their thinking.

I like to send out proposal forms to SLT and Heads of Departments in late Nov, early Dec, where I ask them to let me know their wish lists for the next financial year. I want to hear about their plans to deliver exceptional learning opportunities and what resources or facilities they might need to be able to deliver outstanding teaching and learning. When I get those bids back I like to push them even further, future-proofing them, expanding them and looking into collaboration opportunities to share what we have with others. And then, when I’m budgeting, I do all I possibly can to write those exciting risk-taking passionate projects into our plans. Hearing comments from students along the lines of “wow, this place is amazing”, “I’m so excited about doing that” and “we never thought this could happen to us” makes it all worthwhile. And I can do that because I’ve already renegotiated that proverbial photocopying contract. I’ve already made effective efficiency savings in back office functions. My school is already a well-oiled machine.

But now, this year, I’ve written a budget to get by. To just about get by. I’ve got to tell HoDs that the bidding process won’t happen this year, that they’ve got to plan their curriculum delivery by costing pencils and photocopying, that this year we won’t be able to refurbish the changing rooms, to redesign the art rooms to ensure they meet the new curriculum; this year we won’t re carpet the staff room, replace the oldest server or the laptops that are at the end of their life. For the first time ever, I won’t be able to deliver the things the Student Council have asked for. This year, I just hope we’ll be able to pay the phone bill.

The NASBM standard SBM job description says I should be doing this:

The School Business Manager promotes the highest standards of business ethos …and strategically ensures the most effective use of resources in support of the school’s learning objectives. 

I will not have met this element of the role this year, as I’ll have to enforce Poundshop purchasing and my deny all requests involving any sort of innovation and exploration.

I’m supposed to:

Plan and manage change in accordance with the school development/strategic plan.

Nope, not going to meet that one either. There will be no change, no development, just firefighting and eeking out.

Use the agreed budget to actively monitor and control performance to achieve value for money

Ah, Value for Money, my old friend. Remember when we agreed to not always go for the cheapest option, but instead to look for longer term sustainability and planned preventative strategies? Let’s put a big red X next to that one too then.

Propose revisions to the budget if necessary, in response to significant or unforeseen developments

I have no contingency in my budget this year. None. If anything unforeseen happens, we’re pretty much screwed.

Select types of investments which are appropriate for the school, taking account of risks, views of stakeholders and identify possible and suitable providers in order to maximise return.

Investments! Remember those? Haha!

Evaluate the school’s strategic objectives and obtain information for workforce planning. Identify the types of skills, knowledge, understanding and experience required to undertake existing and future planned activities

So staff development then? Creating new opportunities for staff? CPD? Investing in people? Nurturing talent? Not this year. It’s basically about hoping the right people leave at the right time. And if they don’t? Then workforce planning takes a different turn.

Follow sound practices in estate management and grounds maintenance

This year I ripped up my PPM plan and instead we’re just going to do nothing and hope the roof stays sound. I may have to buy some more buckets to collect the rain, but I can buy them from the Poundshop (see prev.), I have the catalogue after all.


So basically, I’ve failed to deliver several large chunks of my job before I’ve even started, and for a Business Manager who prides themselves on providing exceptional support to my Head and to my school, I have to face the fact that this year, I’ll let them down. There’s a lot of very valid media discussion about teacher stress and retention, but do spare a thought for the School Business professionals, who are busily robbing Peter, but who also know that Paul doesn’t stand much of a chance of being paid either.

Previous governments invested adequate money in developing our profession,  promoting the CSBM, DSBM and ADBSM courses and we now have a national band of highly skilled professionals capable of delivering and developing educational provisions in increasingly complex settings. We have already made those efficiency savings. We have already trimmed the fat from our staffing structures. We know how to run cost effective schools – please allow us to carry on doing so by funding us at an adequate level.












































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































CPD is in-house, that the absolute essential resources they want must come from the bargain catalogue only, and that I’ve got to price check it all before the order goes off. THere will be no option to try anything new, no chance to try out a new service or a new tool






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