Stephen Morales Interview: An in-depth discussion on School Business Management
Q: How important are School Business Professionals to the good functioning of a school or academy?
A: The question has been asked at different points over the last 20-30 years. I think that 15 years ago the massive strategic impact the School Business Leader wasn't particularly well understood. But now you’ll struggle to find a school leader that doesn’t understand the value that school business professional offers our system.
If you take away all of the skills and competencies that school business leader brings to the table (finance procurement, HR infrastructure, marketing and so forth) and you look at the heat map, the extent to which those are exposed is enormous. So, if you're expecting a trained pedagogical leader to take responsibility for the things I've just described, that's an unreasonable ask. Particularly if you have not put in the appropriate training development and support to get my them up that learning curve.
"Now you’ll struggle to find a school leader that doesn’t understand the value that school business professional offer our system. "
Q: What do Headteachers and other members of senior leadership teams need to know about School Business Professionals?
We only exist as a profession to ensure the optimal use of the resources available to us. We don't serve any other function. If your Business Leaders are not doing their compliance tasks, that means the headteachers or their deputies or somebody from the pedagogical team has to step up and do that piece of work, which means they're not in front of children, meaning means you've got a huge resource Gap.
That was what the whole Workforce reform agenda was about with less Dale Morris developed the National College programs and they had the ambition of 1,000 School Business Leaders by the mid-2000s.
I always say to our own community and to those who are sceptical about the use of business language in schools, that we are only about making sure the resources are available and that as much of those resources get to the front line. That's what should be our driving raison d'etre if you like.
Q: What skills should they be making use of?
A: If you look at the origins of School Business Management, in an environment where there was quite a lot of capacity at Local Authority level and dedicated departments in the areas of Finance, HR and Procurement, what you saw emerging was a community of strong administrators, that could have a helicopter view over a number of tasks, but weren't necessarily equally skilled in any one area. The National College programs that were developed early in the 2000s, reflected that. They focused much more on context and generic leadership than they did on the Mastery of technical disciplines.
As the academy system has taken hold, for better or for worse, the local authorities’ ability to provide services has been reduced. Schools are having to be a lot more self-sufficient. They're having to find that technical expertise within their own ranks or outsource. Particularly when we’re seeing schools coming together; the aggregation of leadership, the economies of scale achieved through centralisation and so forth.
We've got three fundamental flavours of leadership emerging for School Business Management. There are ‘Executive’ roles; CEO, CFO & FD. There are ‘Generalist’ roles, more locally based with the peripheral vision and getting involved in a bit of everything, but not necessarily technically skilled in any one area. Then you have ‘Specialists’, where groups of schools can afford to employ an HR Director, a Procurement Director, maybe a State and Capital Management expert. That's the big shift.
When you look at pathways for pedagogical staff, as you get to that Executive level, where you're looking across a group of schools, those skills start to converge. The closer you get to CEO, the less important it is where you have come from, it's more important what executive and strategic skills you have to lead complex large-scale operations. I think that is the big that's a big distinction. You go from the ‘doing’ to the ‘planning, thinking and strategising’.
Q: Do you think that this trend towards specialisation in large amounts is a beneficial thing? Can these skills then be disseminated more widely?
A: There are publications that have been released over the last couple of years about the pros and cons of academisation. I would argue that it is still too early to make a valid assessment.
However, I wonder, if the system of haemorrhaged expertise in Finance, HR, Procurement and the like, then have we lost those individuals forever? Have they left the education sector? Are they now in MAT’s? Are they in different areas of Local Government? Probably. Regardless, we still have this huge skills gap between the reform curve and the investment in developing skills and capacity to respond to an autonomous work.
I can't see that gap or the problem going away anytime soon. I can only see a scenario where schools are going to require technical expertise from somewhere. There is a recruitment pipeline crisis brewing.
School Business Management is a profession of an ageing population. So, it's very difficult to recruit highly suitable Business Leaders. They're leaving the profession very shortly. If we talk about the three flavours, so ‘Generalist’, ‘Executives’ and ‘Specialists’, we need individuals who can operate in each of those flavours, but there is a shortage.
The conversations that I am having with officials and ministers is, do we recognise ‘The Gap’? How do we address it? The gap is so big, that there needs to be proper investment in improving people's skills and knowledge. As an institute, we need to get people up that curve as quickly as possible.
The pushback that we're getting when we talk to our community is, that there is no CPD money and that they cannot get out of school because schools are under an enormous amount of pressure. That's a very broad-brush statement and I do think some practitioners need to take a bit more responsibility for their own professional development. However, if they are really committed and they are seeing senior leaders given the opportunity to go on the CEO pathway, but they are not fully funded, I think that’s a problem for us as a sector.
Q: What is the impact of Curriculum Led Integrated Financial Planning?
A: Integrated Curriculum Led Financial Planning is one of a series of ideas that we put to the Government, in terms of a priority for getting people up that learning curve.
Amongst them was Strategic Procurement, Capital Estates Management & Planning and Strategic HR. All these things have huge implications on schools’ budgets, but also their long-term sustainability. The area that the government are most interested in, is the Integrated Curriculum Led Financial Planning, initially.
Integrated Curriculum Led Financial Planning is about bringing the pillars of leadership together.
So, looking at your particular ambition; What are we trying to do with the community of learners that we have? What are our red lines in terms of Curriculum Design?
You start with that curriculum ambition; you then look at you look at your operating costs and then you look at your grant income and any other income that might be able to attract and scenery activity.
If your curriculum ambition and your operating costs exceed your income, clearly, you've got to make some difficult choices. It then becomes about a conversation about ‘where are you prepared to compromise’. Is it increasing class sizes? Is it contact ratios? Is it your Leadership Team? Once you’ve established your red lines, you might want to look at your operating costs. So, it refocuses the mind across those broad areas, but it brings everybody into the conversation.
It’s integrated because it brings the Curriculum and Finance together, but it also brings the opinions of Faculty Heads, Governors and those responsible for budgets, together. People are not operating in silos. Evidence tells us that those schools that plan in that very joined-up way, have a much more sustainable approach.
Q: What percentage of schools would you say have already implemented this?
"It's a very mixed picture..."
A: It would be impossible for me to put a number on it, I would say, a lot fewer schools than we would like.
Is it embedded systemwide? Absolutely not.
Do some schools pay lip service to the concept? Probably.
Are some schools doing a really good job? Absolutely.
It's a very mixed picture. I always ask school leaders who claim to be as efficient as they can be, to tell me their numbers. If you cannot tell me your numbers, I can't believe that you have done everything that you need to do. I'm not saying you haven’t, but I haven't got the evidence to support it.
For me, the argument is weak if you don't have some kind of handle on the key numbers. The key numbers are things like Contact Ratio, the percentage of leadership as an overall cost of your school, your class sizes and how are you managing your curriculum bonus?
If you don't know those numbers, you're guessing as to where you are in terms of your financial model and results.
Q: How do you see the work School Business Professionals do changing in the next few years?
A: I think there is going to be continued scrutiny on resource management and financial health and efficiency.
I think things have changed enormously and I do worry that in an environment where we don't have access to those highly skilled individuals or Local Authority level. I worry about the school’s internal capacity to deal with the complexities that are required of any school, whatever size.
All of the things that all schools need to take care of in terms of finance, infrastructure, procurement, legal aspects and statutory obligations. They all need to be taken care of and if there is not someone from a Local Authority giving them a tap on the shoulder, then who is doing it?
I think we've got to get behind those individuals with not many technical skills and really support their career journey. Head Teachers should recognise that they are vulnerable if they don't support that learning Journey and the incumbents have got to recognise that just being a willing enthusiastic individually is quite busy and isn't enough for the current climate. That is the way I see things heading.
If any version of conservative government remains in power, then we're full steam ahead to academisation. I think that's a policy in tension that has been made quite clear.
If for whatever reason, the conservative government are not successful in the coming months we end up with any version of a Labour coalition or Labor government, then all bets are off and we could see some quite radical changes. But if we end up with the status quo, then we are going to be moving towards more collaborative structures.
Q: What are you personally bringing to The Schools and Academies Show?
"I am keen to talk about where we are at with Budget Mastery and Integrated Curriculum Led Financial Planning"
A: I hope I bring an interesting perspective. I'll be setting out some of the things that we discussed today.
I continue to Champion resource optimization, as opposed to cost-cutting. I don't believe in radical cost-saving measures for the sake of it. I’m only about whatever settlement we end up with. I will do everything possible to hold our Prime Minister and the Secretary of State to those numbers. I think we are safe for a year. The funding letters will go out in October probably before any election or the Brexit outcome, so I think schools can be reassured, whatever happens physically, that money is safe.
We have got to work through the detail of the National Funding Formula, and I have some strong views on that. I've worked with officials for many years on the Funding Formula and I will continue to do that. Depending on what information I have at the time of the show, I’ll happily share that.
I am also keen to talk about where we are at with Budget Mastery and Integrated Curriculum Led Financial Planning and that joined-up approach to the Strategic Management of resources.
Q: Why would you recommend The Schools and Academies Show?
A: The Schools and Academies Show is a wonderful opportunity to network with colleagues, school leaders and practitioners from each of the areas of school leadership, business governance and pedagogy.
I think it's a useful opportunity for delegates to challenge the greater good of Education. As education at the Leaders is talking to the delegates, I think it's important for the delegates to challenge the views and opinion. It is a real celebration of education and leadership, with lots of energy and lots of ideas flying around.