Brand new, but pushing through: from new SBL to Tes-nominated in four years

We speak to Kevin Parker, school business manager at Ann Edwards C of E Primary School, about being shortlisted for SBL of the year at the Tes Awards and why he loves his job so much

Tell us a bit about yourself, and the pathway to your current role.

I’m 30 years-old, living in Cheltenham and working in Cirencester in a one-and-a-half form entry primary school. At university I did a business management degree with a HR pathway. I originally started on Lidl’s graduate management programme, and did that for a year; I then went into education recruitment and then became a school governor. Eventually, when the opportunity presented itself at the right school, I went for a school business manager interview and, four years later, I’m still here. So, yes, I must be doing something right!

Did you have a preference about what sort of school you’d like to start your SBM journey at?

I wanted to go into a school that was not rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted; the reason for that is I think when you are judged ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted the only place to go is backwards, effectively. So, I didn’t want to go into a place where I immediately felt pressure. The school I now work at is situated in huge grounds; I thought, from a building or marketing perspective, there was something there. Then when I found out the school was in financial deficit, I thought, ‘Okay. This is one way I can really try and make an impact. Let’s get the school out of deficit and let’s provide opportunities for children.’

Explain your input into the development, strategic planning and communication of your school’s vision.

I’m responsible for everything that is non-teaching in the school, whether that’s health and safety, human resources, IT, catering etc. Our school development plan is split into teaching and non-teaching elements, and the non-teaching objectives are effectively set by me alongside the headteacher. Current plans include reducing the deficit and increasing grants and revenue opportunities by working closely with the local community. 

When it comes to the communication, there was a huge opportunity in how we marketed the school. When I joined, the school had a very, very basic website, didn’t use any social media and didn’t have any parental engagement apps. The school still relied heavily on paper communication and I felt, in 2018, we shouldn’t be doing things like this – so, quite quickly, I was implementing new systems.

Because they are quite an experienced team, I think initially they thought ‘Who’s this inexperienced 25-year-old coming in, wanting to make X, Y and Z changes?!’ But I got them onside quite quickly, which proved fortunate as, during the pandemic, communication was absolutely key. Communication is a real focus point for us all the time, whether it’s to parents, staff, pupils, etc. 

You spoke there about transforming the way you communicated with parents, which was obviously a massive project for you. Which other projects or ideas are you most proud of overseeing in the school? 

There are two that I’m really passionate about. The first one was our library bus. When I joined the school in 2018 our reading data was below average, especially in Key Stage 2, where it was significantly below. I felt quite passionate about it because I didn’t really like to read when I was in school and, when I saw what our library was like, it just reminded me of how my school was 20 years ago. I thought, ‘This is not going to inspire and motivate our children! No wonder our data is below average.’ So, I asked our pupils, ‘How would you like your library to look, and how can we make reading fun?’

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One suggestion included getting an aeroplane as our library. Unfortunately, I thought that was a bit of a logistical nightmare! But it did spark an idea in my head…Every morning the children come on a double-decker bus, so I said, ‘Okay, well why don’t we get a double decker bus for you? We can have the downstairs as individual reading zones, and upstairs stripped out and have it as a group room.’

Because we were in deficit, we couldn’t afford any money to spend on it so I contacted a few companies and got a bus donated. We’re situated near two industrial estates in our village and I went, literally, knocking on their doors, saying, ‘This is what we’d like to do. This is why we’re doing it. Would you like to be a part of it? And, if you give us £250, this is what you’ll get; a logo on the bus and an invite to the official opening.’ 

A lot of these businesses said things like ‘Yeah, we’d love to do it. We always want to give money to schools, or help schools, but we don’t know how,’ and I guess businesses are unwilling to just write a blank cheque and say, ‘Here you go. Spend it however you want.’ So, we managed to raise £11,500 through local, national, and international companies. Now, two-and-a-half years later, our reading data across the whole school, especially Key Stage 2, is above average. So, in terms of impact, I think that’s had the best school impact for me. 

The second project I’m proud of overseeing in the school had the biggest personal impact for me. About 20% of our pupils receive free school meals so, when the pandemic hit, we were really concerned about how are these pupils were going to access education online. In addition, because we were still in a bit of a deficit, we couldn’t go out and just buy 200 laptops for everybody.

Someone put me in touch with a company called DXC Technology – which meant nothing to me at the time. It’s a huge technology company, headquartered in the US, and they actually donated 50 brand new laptops to us. I think the street value of those laptops is about £21,500. We managed to get every vulnerable pupil a laptop and then, pretty much anyone who asked, we could support with a laptop. 

What would you say has been your biggest professional challenge whilst you’ve been in the role?  

I came into the job as a confident 25-year-old with no experience in the sector that I was about to work in – yet on the senior leadership team. There were staff who had been at the school for 10, 15, 20 years; I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers – I’m a very collaborative person – but I think people are often stuck in their ways so, when someone tries to change these ways, it is often met with some resistance.  

And as I said previously, within the first six months there were a few different processes that I implemented – such as taking the register electronically, rather than on a paper format, signing in via an electronic touchscreen and revamping our fire evacuation process. I was by far the youngest member of staff in our school, and one of only three males at that time. The challenge was gaining the respect of, and partnership working with, all my staff. I did this by showing them what I wanted to do, and trying to bring them along with me, rather than forcing things upon them.  

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How would you say that you evaluate success?

Within the role of the business manager I often go to our pupils because, ultimately, everything we’re doing is for them. It might directly impact our staff. and benefit them but, if it’s improving staff wellbeing, members of staff are happier, which means they’ll be coming into work with a better frame of mind, and the pupils will benefit. So, I’m always asking the pupils what they want or, if a decision has been made, how do they feel about it? I think if they feel happy, secure and enjoying school, then I that’s a really good starting point. Secondary successes would be if there a financial benefit, whether we are streamlining processes, if we are bringing in new innovations to the school. For me, if the pupils are happy – and they can see the benefit of something – then that’s the most important thing.  

How do you motivate your team? 

Communication is key, so I’m always asking their opinion and keeping in contact with them. I’m definitely not a ‘cut throat’ manager and, although it is cliché, my door is always open. I try and lead by example – though not by doing things like arriving first and leaving last; if I’ve got an appointment at the doctor’s, or I want to drop my son at nursery, I do that and I let my team know that I’m going to do that, because they all have families as well and that’s really important for them. 

What would you say are the most important qualities for school business leaders to have? 

Be flexible, especially at the moment. My headteacher is back tomorrow, but has been off for the last nine days with COVID. Our deputy headteacher is classroom-based, and the only other member of the SLT – the SENCO – has COVID as well. I could have a plan at the end of each day ready for the next day, or in the morning for that day, but a ‘phone call can certainly change how your first hour or two looks. 

You also need to communicate effectively, so you don’t leave people hanging; if you’ve said you’re going to get back to them by Thursday, get back by to them by Thursday. Failing to do so might well annoy them and they might not have the confidence, or desire, to want to chase you. I think it’s really important, if you said you’re going to get something done at a certain time, even if it’s not done, give them an early update. ‘Okay, this isn’t looking realistic. Can we adjust? Can we say by end of play Friday?’ Or, if it’s done, get it to them by that time.

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We are spinning a lot of plates at the moment – with sickness, especially – so the SBM needs to be ready to get their hands dirty. This could involve going into the kitchen to help serve the meals, it could be unblocking the toilet, it could be doing gate duty to make sure that the children come in safely. These things are not part of my job role in terms of what’s written down, but all these things make the school work. 

Apart from unblocking toilets…why do you think you were shortlisted for SBL of the year in the Tes Awards 2021?

I think financially I’ve made a huge impact on the school. When I joined the school was in deficit but, within three-and-a-half years, I’ve either generated additional revenue or saved the school money amounting to £180,000.

You could say that, in this time, I’ve paid for my salary and significantly more, so I haven’t actually cost the school anything. We’ve also managed to aid the pupil’s learning through the library bus, whole school trips that have been fully-funded by external companies and the laptop donation. 

The local community is also quite diverse; you’ve got some really well-off families, but you’ve also got pupils who’s only hot meal is the meal that they get in school. I approached a local supermarket, and built up a partnership with them. They now donate a hamper of food to a family each week; to date we’ve donated around £4,500 worth of food to these families. 

I was also headhunted for a local authority secondment. A school that was regarded by Ofsted as inadequate, and had to convert to an academy, needed someone to go in and set up the budget for them. I’d only been in our school 18 months and the local authority came to me and said, ‘We think you do a really good job.’ To be headhunted, and have that reputation within the local authority, was good. 

I’ve helped our school get around £50,000 worth of grants, £30,000 of additional revenue – for example, where I brought in a sports holiday club company into our school and they paid to use the site. All these different things come to about £30,000, and then the saving in the school is about £100,000 as well.

School business leaders across the country are amazing but, when you put it on paper, I think what we have achieved is possibly why I got shortlisted. I like to think I’ve made a difference for the pupils, the local community, and the parents.

I had a parent cry once when I was delivering the hampers. When she opened the door she saw how much food I was delivering to her for free and she just broke down. She said “We’re now going to be able to eat a hot meal every night for a whole week.” I was blown away. I really realised how much of a powerful thing it was that we’re doing. 

I may get home an hour later on a Monday evening, but that time that I give up to volunteer to make someone else’s week, is much more important. 

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