SBMs working in multi-academy trusts
How did this MAT come about?
The Blackpool Multi Academy Trust was originally born following a request from the local authority to unite and help a local primary school facing some difficulties. Two mainstream primary schools and our special school were selected to join forces and work together to help the school.
How did you find the conversion process?
The original academy conversion from a special all-through school to part of a MAT was an extremely speedy process and at times felt like it was all a bit too fast to fully grasp what changes we were making.
At the time of conversion, I was the only school business manager in post and was asked to lead on the conversion process for all three converting schools. I was quickly propelled from my safe, protected role as an LA-maintained SBM into being cut off from my local authority security blanket and thrust out into a world of solicitors, accountants and auditors!
What were your priorities during the process?
My priorities were to ensure that the transition was smooth, both on paper and with the staff involved. Converting to an academy can be unsettling for staff and we made a commitment across the MAT to not change any terms and conditions. We held numerous meetings in all three schools to speak with staff and unions and we invited questions and feedback. The whole process was generally positive as we kept everyone informed throughout.
As I was tied up with the conversion process I had to rely on my office staff to help out with some of my routine tasks which they did and I was able to focus on the conversion fully.
We converted in September 2013 on the understanding that we would sponsor the school in difficulty, so technically we became sponsors before we actually converted. I didn’t know what I was doing (and sometimes still wonder if I actually do know what I’m doing!) and the learning curve was extremely steep!
How have your financial responsibilities changed?
I suddenly had to manage the bank accounts (away from the LA), the monthly bank reconciliations, the payroll and VAT – all of which I had not had to do previously, having worked in an LA school.
In short, I had to learn to become an accountant for a business. Then, only six months into the new role, I was needed to help the sponsored school learn how to do these processes too. As we were the first MAT to form in Blackpool we were very much on our own with little advice.
I would recommend to those converting now to ensure you have someone who has been through the process who can guide you step by step on what needs doing when.
However, the conversion of all three schools initially was smooth and I managed to hold on to many of the services that we had previously procured, including my finance package which was a comfort. The sponsored school converted later in the year and I managed that process too.
What’s life like as an SBM in an academy?
People often ask me what is different for the academy SBM and my answer is always the same: the workload, the accountability and the responsibility. I couldn’t have envisaged the extra responsibility that comes with academy status and it’s difficult to put into context just how that affects you in your daily working life. I am constantly having to think ahead, asking myself questions such as: ‘How will the auditors view that transaction?’, ‘Is this legal?’, ‘Where’s the evidence?’ and, more frequently, ‘Where’s the receipt?’
This is bad enough for one academy but when you think for four academies, the pressure can be huge. I’m lucky in the respect that the other academies now all have business managers who manage their own school finances brilliantly.
How do you work with the other SBMs in your MAT?
We meet monthly to discuss services, HR issues, payroll etc. We agreed to appoint an extra finance administrator to work across the three academies to alleviate some of the workload of each of us.
We have sought and gained services for the MAT at a discounted rate such as HR/payroll, energy, audit and finance support. We constantly talk to each other and one of us is always available if anyone is struggling. The teaching and non-teaching staff share Inset and twilight training sessions and the headteachers work closely together too.
Do you have more responsibilities now?
I remain responsible for the MAT finances and I hold the dual role of finance officer and company secretary for the MAT. This involves all management of MAT finances and the end-of-year process where all four academies prepare their accounts which are then consolidated into the final report.
For me, this means I have to work towards the financial end of year twice: once for my academy and again for the MAT. All monthly reconciliations happen twice as we agreed to maintain our autonomy regarding finance and services.
The finance package I use is Cedar and the reconciliation process is straightforward and relatively quick now.
How have your priorities changed?
As a single local authority school, the financial element of the SBM role was relatively minor compared to that of an academy. I would say I spent about 20% of my time paying invoices, checking the monitoring reports and ensuring my cost centres were within budget. As an academy I now spend a good 90% of my time forecasting, preparing, checking, reconciling, budgets, payroll, management accounts as well as the day-to-day invoices, credit cards and petty cash for both my academy and the MAT... and that’s before I get to my actual job description as an SBM.
To address this change, I have had to increase hours for my office staff and train them to take on some routine tasks, such as the lettings, the petty cash and banking, as well as the appointment of a finance assistant to take some of the load. This means that I can pass on much of the day-to-day operational finance and concentrate on the strategic level finance, leaving me time to ensure that all aspects of my role are fulfilled.
What advice would you offer to fellow SBMs?
As a new SBM joining a MAT I would advise good solid teamwork and communication between the academies involved and a nominated person to lead. We initially agreed to work together and retain our own services etc but it’s clear that there needs to be a lead with defined roles delegated out. We agreed originally to retain our own services and to remain as independent as we could as we all had differing time and financial commitments attached to many services. I am based in a special school where we are restricted in what we can and can’t change. However, as we move into our third year we are coming together more as a MAT: we have made more ‘MAT-wide’ appointments, and we are looking at moving towards using the same services for finance and HR next year.
Look for solutions together, yes, there are issues that frustrate us all but rather than moan, let’s find a solution together. It’s not a competition either – we are in this together. It’s not about who can spend longest in the office; it should be about what can we do together to make it better ultimately for our children.
If you are joining a MAT as a sponsored school, be receptive to the help on offer. I know we all know what we are doing but I’m always open to suggestions of ways to work smarter and more efficiently and if it means saving some money that can be channeled back into the classroom, then I’m even more interested!
There is power in numbers and you can bargain well if buying in for more than one school. Be as brazen as you have to be: if you don’t ask you will never get that reduction.
Be open to new ideas. Be open to changing services that you’ve used for many years for a service that is smarter and more efficient. Be open to changing your own practice. Be open to realising that you can do things differently and that different can be good. Just be open to it.
A lot of people often find change daunting, do you agree?
There’s a certain amount of comfort in sticking to what you know: changing services is a daunting prospect. What works in one academy may not work for another. On conversion I changed my cleaning contractors and promptly saved the academy £15,000 but when the other academies looked at the same company it would have cost them more to change due to staffing restrictions.
One of the academies changed their catering contract in the first year and it worked well, but when I looked at the offer it didn’t fit for our pupils. It’s not one size fits all, it has got to be what’s best for the children. I’ve never felt a reluctance to collaborate it just has to be the right thing for the academy. I can honestly say that I haven’t met a business manager in Blackpool who is reluctant to collaborate; I have always been given help and advice when I’ve asked and in turn have given it back where I can.
What have you learned so far?
I have learnt so much since joining the MAT: there is no payrise being the first! I have also learnt how to be accountable. I have found my voice: many SBMs are senior leaders in academies and we have to live up to that and earn the respect of staff. I have learnt that it’s ok to be different too – I chose to stay on a different finance system than my colleagues and it works for us all.
I’ve been lucky: I was appointed as a business manager which was a new position, so I didn’t encounter any challenges with staff. I am sometimes called the ‘secretary’ which, I have to admit, does make me cringe inwardly and I quietly correct them. Although I did get asked the other day if I only go to SMT meetings to take the minutes (again, cringes inwardly!). But it’s up to us to change that perception of the business manager and we need the help of the other senior leaders in school to do this.
I have learnt to think ‘MAT’: what can the MAT get out of this? Can we make a deal for the MAT? How can we generate income for the MAT?
How do people perceive the SBM in a MAT?
I do feel that the role of the SBM in a MAT is underestimated. People seem to be generally unaware of what is expected or required to fulfill the role adequately and the role should be recognised nationally – both in status and pay as it is vastly different up and down the country. There is a big difference between operational and strategic and it’s difficult to be both and be effective.
For example: if your SBM is operational and carrying out day-to-day maintenance tasks such as paying invoices/taking calls/answering queries and general office duties then how can they spend the time on strategic roles such as budget planning, monitoring, income generation etc? Some SBMs are on the leadership team and some are not. I feel it’s important to be part of that leadership team but you have to have the opportunity to feed into it too. Pay scales are massively different: in the same authority there are SBMs paid as office managers and others paid as assistant headteachers! The role has become more and more important and I don’t think our headteachers could manage without this post in the future.
I do agree that there should be clearer role definitions for a school SBM, an academy SBM and a MAT SBM as the levels of responsibility/accountability do differ between each role. When we converted in 2013, I couldn’t find a model job description for an academy SBM or a MAT SBM. All of these roles should be incorporated into the plans for the new SBM Standards.
What challenges do you face in the future?
In terms of future challenges for me personally: both members of my office team will leave me in October so my wheels are about to fall off! This is nothing I’ve done, I hasten to add! One is for maternity leave and the other is relocating down south. I’m faced with the fresh challenge of training up new staff to the level that will enable me to function even more effectively.
The Sixth Form is the immediate challenge, ensuring that I’m aware of and up-to-date with what funding is out there; how to write the perfect business case to enable us to expand our premises to accommodate our increasing numbers; and how to bring in bids and grants to ensure its success. Exciting times again – wish me luck!