In some schools, they're called the business manager. In others, they're the finance director or bursar. But while the title may vary, the job is essentially the same. With budgets often running into millions, schools need a financial figurehead. Someone to balance the books. Someone to take care of basics, so the head and teaching staff can concentrate on raising standards.
Auditing, budgeting, cost-cutting ... the job description reads like an A-Z of finance. A good business manager will save money by weeding out wastefulness, make money by identifying new sources of income and ensure that budgets are stretched.
But it's not just about cash. School business managers (SBMs) also play a key role in managing support staff. If the cleaners are cutting corners, or the caterers aren't cooking enough vegetarian meals, then it's down to the SBM to put things right. The little things matter. For example, Dawn Boyes, SBM at Cockermouth School in Cumbria, has just finished a PGCE, during which her specialist area of study was school toilets. "You wouldn't believe how important nice toilets are to the wellbeing of a school," she says.
As well as overseeing day-to-day running of the premises, SBMs are also involved in strategic planning. About two-thirds are part of the senior leadership team, because it's no good schools having a long-term vision if they don't have the resources and facilities to back that up. "I've recently been looking at how we might reduce class sizes and improve ICT provision to help meet the personalised learning agenda," says Ms Boyes. "It will have a big impact on staffing and budgets and we need to plan ahead."
So, to be an effective SBM you need to know about schools, and you need to know about business. But you can approach the job from either side. According to the National College for School Leadership, about a third of SBMs come from banking, accountancy or private industry. But nearly two-thirds have a school-based background. They might be teachers, governors, or clerical staff whose jobs have evolved to include many of the duties associated with an SBM.
Heads also look to SBMs to help them manage change, getting them involved in risk management. If schools are forced to undergo a restructuring process, for example, an SBM or bursar might be called upon to develop management structures among support staff or even manage outsourcing agreements with external bodies. They could also get involved in looking at working time structures and other aspects of how staff are deployed in the school. If a school improvement plan is in place, an SBM might help draw it up and revise it.
"I started off as a school administrator," says Ms Boyes. "I used to advise the leadership team, but wasn't really an integral part of it. Then I did a diploma in school business management and realised how much more I could be doing. Each time I've moved jobs, I've been given more responsibilities, and a lot of the things I do now would once have been considered part of the headteacher's job. That's what I enjoy most - the fact that what I do has a direct impact on teaching and learning."
SBMs also play an important role in nurturing and developing the ever-growing number of support staff in schools. As well as managing processes and budgets, they will be responsible for managing support staff performance and ensuring they receive the training they need to do their jobs.
About 90 per cent of secondary schools, and more than half of all primaries, have a dedicated SBM - and in the next few years it's likely that those figures will rise further. For example, it's becoming common for clusters of small primaries to share a business manager between them. It means job prospects are good, and looking further ahead, experts suggest large secondary schools may one day be run jointly by a business head, and an educational head, both with equal standing
What you can expect
Salary Many SBMs are paid less than Pounds 25,000 a year, others are paid more than Pounds 50,000, while bursars in independent schools can earn upwards of Pounds 70,000. It all depends on the scope of your responsibility. Salaries are rising as the importance of a good SBM becomes more widely acknowledged.
Qualifications The NCSL runs two programmes. If you've no previous experience, the most suitable is the Certificate of School Business Management, while for those already in post there's the diploma option. www.ncsl.org.uksbm-index.
Key qualities Financial, ICT and administrative skills. The ability to run a school in a business-like manner, without making it feel like a business.
Next steps Check out the website of the National Association of School Business Management www.nasbm.co.uk. There's information on conferences and training, as well as recommended reading.