I hate this time of year. It's miserable, cold, damp and dark. In SBL-land, it's the time of forecasting year-end figures on an hourly basis, because with budgets as tight as your favourite tight-thing analogy (mine is too rude to type), one uncommitted invoice, another long-term sickness absence, or a historic three-year software licence that no one told you about is enough to tip your budget – and a school business leader – over the edge.
Back in the day when school funding inhabited the same galaxy as school expenditure, it was possible to have a few slush funds of ballast hidden inside the staffing budget disguised as 'maternity', and Mr Potential Science-Teacher, and you could always be sure that the income potential of the photocopying life jacket would never let you down. Some might even remember the raw abandon of the School Development Plan parachute, where the SBL could hide away a sizeable stash of spare change to cover the bill for the next big thing piece of essential kit (and accompanying TLR) that inevitably pitched up midway through the financial year.
Now, however, we're down to bare bones and broth, and the finance manager has to try to ensure that every single ledger code stays on course throughout the year, flying at the right rate we're profiled at. As pilots of our financial aeroplane, we live the last three months of the year with a permanent sense of dread that if we angle our descent just one degree off, we'll crash on the runway as our second-hand Cessna hits a pothole that we couldn't afford to get fixed. And, however much the ensuing inquiry might blame the aviation authority, we all know it's the pilot that ends up taking the hit.
Prophets of doom
It’s also the time of year where we’re poised to hear about next year's budget, and the small glimmer of hope we once held that things might get better has dwindled to the dull and sickening certainty that things next year will, generally, be really, really shit. It's just a question of how deep that pile of shit might be.
We're asked to predict scenarios that will impact on people's lives. Not only on jobs, wellbeing and morale, but also the extra provisions that so many schools provide. Not the front-line pens and exercise books (we're bargain basement shopping for these already) but those extra provisions, the after schools clubs, the trip subsidies, the hardship funds and the focused support that we're having to consider cutting, if we haven't already.
And that's when it hurts. That's when being a school business leader really sucks. When you have to be the one that writes the list. The list of things we can't afford. And you then also have to be the one to take those things away. Make the phone calls, write the cancellation letters, tell the people. Of course, it's never just the SBL – there are the other members of SLT, the head, the governing body – but when you put your professional heart and soul into providing everything everyone needs, and now you have to say you can't, you just can't help taking it personally.
So that's why I hate this time of year. It's not the cold or the dark or the mud or the rain – I don't mind them really, they're just part of the natural cycle. What I do mind is working my way through the dark season, only to find there's another one right behind it.
So spare a thought for your SBL over the next few weeks as you see us frowning at our computer screens. We'll do our best, we always do, but that delivery of fairy dust doesn't seem to have arrived just yet.
Hilary Goldsmith is director of finance and operations at Varndean School. She tweets at @sbl365