Is it time for SBMs to lean in?

Released 15/07/2013

Why aren't school business managers paid like the leaders they are? JULIA DENNISON does her best Sheryl Sandberg impression and explores whether the ubiquitous glass ceiling and women's underrepresentation on corporate boards is anything to blame

Female SBMs on the SLT report salaries less than half those of similar level male colleagues on the board

Women of the business world are suffering from neck ache. Ever since Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, published her treatise Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, women have been under pressure to pursue their ambitions and stake their claim at the boardroom table. Women have been following Sandberg's advice and ‘leaning' into the corporate conversation - enough to keep chiropractors in business.

Of course, feminist critics argue that for all their will, women, and the fact so many are paid significantly less than their male counterparts, and make up disproportionately fewer leadership positions, are the victims of a culture that keeps them undervalued, underutilised and underachieving.

They say it's unfair to put the onus on women, since it's the culture that needs to change and equality in the workplace benefits everyone. But, even if it's a small fissure in the glass ceiling, progress for women can only be a good thing.

The education sector is no different from industry. "It is generally the case in education that women in leadership positions are paid less than a man in an equivalent role," Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers tells Education Executive. "This is true in headship, for example." According to 2011-12 figures from the DfE, male leadership teachers earned an average of £59,000 annually, while women in the same band earned an average of £53,800.


But the fight for women's rights in the workplace is reminiscent of another battle: school business managers' continuous struggle to get onto senior leadership teams and be paid at a leadership scale. Could the fact that a vast majority of SBMs in UK schools are female (70% of ASCL SBM members and 88% of those in NAHT, for example), have anything to do with their predicament?

At a recent ASCL conference, one school business manager confided that they were earning as much as £20,000 less than other people on her senior leadership team, and despite being a leader in the school, was even being asked to make photocopies and other administrative duties that are below her station. This echoed other conversations throughout the day.

The discrepancy in pay is down to the fact that school business managers do not have an official pay scale like teachers, and even non-teaching headteachers or deputy heads, do. According to a National College survey in 2008, 52% of SBMs/bursars were paid at or below NQT rates for a teacher. Granted this was some years ago, but it is unlikely to have changed significantly. Considering SBMs are vital to the business of running a school, this is shockingly low.

It is with this in mind that membership organisations like NAHT and ASCL have been compiling evidence for the School Teachers' Review Body to support putting SBMs on the leadership pay spine comparable to a non-teaching assistant head, for example. This will mean higher salaries for many, though as is always the case with trying to please everybody, it will also mean a dip in salary for others. "We're pursuing this policy in our evidence to the School Teachers Review Body, which controls these matters," says Hobby. "Not every SBM will want this, of course, which is why we see it as an option. However, it has both symbolic and practical value: symbolic, because it demonstrates that SBMs are a full member of the leadership team and practical because there is a huge disparity in their pay and conditions around the country."

Nicky Gillhespy, the SBM representative on the NAHT's National Executive, and first female to join, said she was motivated to get involved for this reason. "I think that's an absolute vote of confidence for the profession," she says.

However, Deborah Simpson, principal officer (pay and conditions) at union Voice, argues that it should be local government pay and conditions, and not school teachers' pay and conditions that should include business managers, since they are not teachers. "We don't see the school business managers sitting within the leadership pay in teachers' pay and conditions," she explains. "We do see them sitting in a higher level of local government pay and there are mechanisms there to pay them if the schools just access them." The problem currently is that without a directive from the Local Government Association, schools can pay SBMs what they want.


But is this fight for equality for business managers really different from that for women in the workplace in general? Or are SBMs hitting their head on the glass ceiling? Education Executive decided to take these questions to the digital debating floor that is LinkedIn.

Lisa Polhill, school business manager at Elmgrove Primary School and Nursery Harrow, said while she wasn't sure it was a sign of gender inequality, she couldn't ever imagine "earning the same as an assistant headteacher or deputy, let alone a head".

Ann Brown, business manager at Wren Spinney Community Special School in Northampton, told a similar story: "I work in a small school and find a difference not only in pay but in recognition of the responsibility I have as an SBM. I acknowledge that the [lack of] recognition may be due to an ignorance of what we actually do but the pay does not seem fair in relation to the responsibility we have. As a member of SLT my pay does not compare to the other members but my workload I feel, is as demanding. Teachers have a national body to protect and support them and their pay whereas support staff don't. To me it feels like support staff are the ‘second class' citizens of education but the expectation of our standard of work is just as high as the teaching staff."

Some argue since school business managers aren't directly responsible for teaching and learning, so therefore don't deserve to earn as much. "I think schools may be unique in that they have the teaching staff and then everyone else," argues Polhill. But would a chief financial officer on the board of a manufacturer be earning any less because he or she wasn't ‘directly responsible' for the manufacture of product?At ASCL's recent SBM conference, keynote speaker Marcus Orlovsky, director of Bryanston Square challenged this very idea: "I heard business managers earlier talking about that they look after the business of the school and not the teaching. Well, the business of school is the teaching." In other words, everything a school does is for the benefit of its children.

Caroline Collins, school business manager at Miles Coverdale Primary School, thinks the discrepancy in pay and conditions is a predicament for the profession, and not womankind. "It's not to do with gender but the role," she says. "I truly believe that the inequality in salary and status is down to people's perceptions of the SBM role as ‘administrative' rather than leadership despite the vast areas of responsibility we have." Simpson elaborates: "I think the problem with it is that it's a relatively new role and because it's not getting the recognition, yes it does have an impact on gender equality, but it's probably because the role hasn't properly been fitted in with the rest of the school staffing system rather than the fact that it's deliberately disadvantaging women."

However, a closer look at the cultural implications of ‘administrative' work paints another picture. Historically ‘admin' has been the realm of women in part-time roles to supplement a husband's career while their children were in school. While this was not always the case, it is often the unavoidable association made with the role. Things are changing, with the onset of financial directors in academies and executive business managers. So why is it, schools business managers on the leadership team are still being asked to do the photocopying?

While Sandberg has been pushing women to act more like men in the workplace, her critics have argued that work isn't everything and equality between men and women is just as much about the kitchen table as it is the board room table. It's therefore interesting to consider that 65% of headteachers are women and the number of headteachers on six figures is on the rise. With this in mind, is equality in school just as much about the office desk as it is about the classroom desk? If the gender pay gap is not directly responsible for the plight of the school business manager, is it not at least an influencing factor? One thing is for sure: if women in education leadership got paid as much as men, the average salary of an SBM would certainly be higher.


Join the discussion on LinkedIn by signing up to the ‘Education Executive' membership group.

This feature appears in the July 2013 issue of Education Executive magazine. Want content like this delivered straight to your desk? Sign up for a subscription here.


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