Organisational managers in the English school system: Professional identity and territory negotiation

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


In England schools are complex organizational structures with sizable budgets often operating in collaboration with other schools and agencies. Furthermore, recent structural reforms and the associated decline of the Local Authority, or the ‘middle tier of government’, are symptomatic of a shift towards what has been termed a ‘school-led system’ (Hargreaves, 2012). Consequently, business acumen has become a key element of school leadership. Against this backdrop, the role of the School Business Manager (SBM) has evolved as a key position for schools adapting to a turbulent policy landscape necessitating an increase in organizational management capacity (Woods, 2014). The individuals occupying these roles are situated in a unique position in the school. Though generally classed as support staff, SBMs are often members of the leadership team with considerable influence and decision-making responsibility over financial and organizational matters. As such they occupy multiple group memberships (Author, 2014).

Since the turn of the millennium, successive and cross-party governments in England have conceived and actively supported the development of the SBM role in what Woods (2014) terms a ‘professionalization project’ thus transforming the composition of the school workforce considerably. Internationally, there is a small yet growing scholarly acknowledgement of the organisational manager role in schools. For instance, the educational administrations of Australia (Starr, 2012; Newman, 2009), New Zealand (Woods, 2014) and South Africa (Woods, 2014) boast systems of school business management that are broadly aligned to the English context while the United States also has a long established profession of school business officials though these individuals tend to operate at the district rather than school level (Author, 2015). Yet, this remains an under researched area of the field with SBMs having received little scholarly attention to date (Mertkan, 2011; Woods; 2014), particularly in comparison to other members of the school workforce.

Informed by social identity theory (Tajfel, 1978) and the notion of the ‘third space professional’ (Whitchurch, 2008), the article draws on interview data in which participants discuss their professional narratives and how they perceive their role and the burgeoning profession to which they belong both within their own settings and the wider school system. The concept of identity originates from how and where an individual perceives of their position within a society, community or group (Bourdieu, 1990). According to Giddens (1991) the pursuit of self-identity is fundamental to the development of individual agency. It is comprised of individuals’ interactions and engagement with others as a means of cultivating and developing social structures and systems. The social identity theory posited by Tajfel (1978) suggests individuals define themselves according to the groups to which they belong which provide a basis for shared social action. Moreover, the meanings associated with any social identity are products of our collective history and present. This latter point is pertinent to this article whereby the notion of a collective history of shared experiences and professional trajectories is particularly relevant to the participants in this study, all of whom share a similar professional narrative. This is explored further within the paper.

The notion of professional identity and the means by which it is constructed and shaped has also been the focus of work by Whitchurch (2008) in her research exploring the changing working practices of academics and professional managers in higher education. She posits the emergence of blended professionals in the sector with backgrounds comprising and combining both professional and academic experience. She also highlights the blurring of traditional boundaries between functional, administrative and professional activity in higher education that has given rise to ‘a third space between professional and academic domains’ (p. 384). While this research is located in the higher education sector focusing on academic and professional management and administrative staff members there are interesting comparisons to be drawn with the school sector in which the growing number of SBMs, including increasingly, individuals from the other sectors outside of education is transforming the composition of a school workforce that can no longer easily be described in binary terms as comprising teaching and support staff.

A multiple case study approach was adopted to explore the professional practice of the participating SBMs with the ‘case’ constituting the individual SBM (see table 1). This approach facilitated an in depth exploration and meaningful understanding of the historical narratives, working lives and professional identities of the participants and the educational contexts within which each one operates. The research was designed in line with case study research suggested by Stake (2000) whereby information was gathered on the nature, historical background and structural, socio-economic and geographical context of each case with multiple cases drawn upon to capture variation within the sample and further develop understanding around the key issues and emergent themes.

Participants were identified, approached and recruited via a combination of email invitation and advertisement. Email invitations to participate in the study were sent out to a list of SBMs across the country with whom the researcher had previously worked. In addition, the National Association of School Business Management (funding body) placed an advert for the project on their website and a flyer (also advertising the project and inviting participation) in the welcome pack for delegates at their annual conference. The response to these invites and advertisements was very positive with 32 SBMs from across the country volunteering to participate in the study. From this larger sample, a final sample of 10 SBMs was selected. This number was decided upon based on the need to generate a sample that would be large enough to reflect a range of socio-economic, geographical and structural contexts and different phases of education in order to capture wide variations in the SBM role. Given the case study design of the research it was felt that this number of participants would be sufficient and allow the development of 10 rich cases of SBMs in practice across a range of different settings and contexts that would encapsulate the breadth, depth and diversity of the role.

Data were gathered via a 60 minute interview with each of the 10 participating SBMs. The interview schedule was designed to explore and elicit information relating to the following three areas:

• Professional narrative: including details of professional background and career trajectory, the route they have taken to their current position and their qualifications and credentials.
• Current role: covering the composition of the SBM role, their position within the broader leadership and management structure and the extent to which they believe their role is understood and appreciated within their setting.
• Professional identity: including the self-perception of the SBM and how they believe they are perceived by other staff members, building credibility, challenges to identity and perceptions on the broader profession of school business management in the current school system.

Interviews were semi-structured, to provide an optimal combination of flexibility and ability to adapt to the flow of the interview, while staying firmly within the parameters and aims of the study

Career trajectory
The findings indicate a wide diversity in terms of the professional background of SBMs with participants entering the profession via a number of different routes. Indeed, a common theme in this respect is perhaps the lack of uniformity in relation to the career trajectory of SBMs. Furthermore, not a single participant set out to be a SBM at the outset of their working life. Participants also discuss the qualifications and credentials they have acquired as part of their professional development as SBMs. There is perhaps more consistency here in terms of the specific school business management certification held by participants. However, the extent to which such certification remains relevant and fit for purpose within an increasingly academised school system is a point of growing concern.

Qualifications and credentials
In addition to the vast array of knowledge and experience that they bring to their respective roles, the participating SBMs are also a highly qualified cohort. Almost all participants have completed at least one of the recognised SBM programmes in England (Certificate/Diploma/Advanced Diploma in School Business Management and the School Business Director Programme). Others have completed school business management specific courses in higher education and others still have undergraduate and masters degrees from related disciplines. Others still have completed specialist financial and accountancy qualifications.

Role composition
The range responsibility and duties undertaken by the SBMs in this study is wide and varied. Their responsibilities cover numerous areas including the school budget/finance; human resources; health and safety; buildings and premises; catering; management of support staff; marketing; fund raising and developing and maintaining community links. A number of the participants have support staff to assist them in their work. Generally speaking much of the responsibility associated with the SBM role can be described as organisational and resource management and is fairly typical of what might be expected of a modern day SBM in the school system in England. It is also important to note other important factors that contribute to the composition of the role. For instance, the size and associated organisational capacity of the school has a considerable influence on the breadth and depth of the SBM role with secondary SBMs tending to have a wider remit than their primary counterparts. Similarly, some of the SBMs are working across more than one school (for example if their school is part of an collaborative arrangement such as a federation or multi-academy trust). Those participants working in academy schools tend to have a different role to their peers in maintained schools, mostly because of the organisational autonomy that academy schools are granted in terms of finances, resources and provision of services.

Professional identity
There is variation amongst the participants in terms of the status of the role and the level of leadership and management responsibility each has in their respective schools. Whilst all participants are members of their school leadership teams, how the role is perceived by the headteacher and governing body often dictates the level of decision-making responsibility and influence the SBM has. Many participants also highlight the growing professional community of SBMs to which they feel a sense of belonging and, more importantly, consult regularly for guidance and reassurance in their roles while also offering support to other SBMs when required. A number of those interviewed spoke of local and regional networks of SBMs with which they meet regularly and maintain a constant rapport either through online group conversations or over the phone. They very much perceive such professional dialogue and support amongst their peers as a key feature of what it means to belong to a profession.

However, there is also an underlying disappointment that despite the progress made within the profession over the last 15 years, the role is given universal recognition. Moreover, a number of participants point to the disparity between teaching and non-teaching staff in schools. Something that is not necessarily conducive to a productive and healthy organizational culture.

Despite the paucity of knowledge surrounding the means by which education systems across the globe manage the organisational and financial aspects of their schools it might be assumed that the neoliberal drift that continues to shape global education policy will have significant consequences for the ways in which schools are organised and staffed in the future. This paper provides a new empirical and conceptual contribution to the field by addressing this gap in the literature. Specifically it will support the generation of knowledge relating to the professional identity formation of SBMs and the influence of this emerging profession on the school system in England. While the paper draws on and is situated within the English context, the issues it raises and explores speak to a wider global discourse surrounding the changing nature, composition and professional identity of the school workforce. Specifically the increasing number of professionals from sectors outside of education (e.g. business/corporate, finance etc.) that find themselves employed and have increasingly influential roles in schools.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2017
EventAmerican Educational Research Association Annual Conference - San Antonio, United States
Duration: 27 Apr 20171 May 2017


ConferenceAmerican Educational Research Association Annual Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited States


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