Expecting the unexpected by Hilary Goldsmith

Ask any school business leader to describe a typical day and they will most likely laugh at you. There is no typical school day in school business leadership and that's what makes the job so much fun.


There are of course a large amount of jobs and tasks that can be planned, diarised, prepared and templated in advance, but just as you're settling down to that start 2-hour slot you booked yourself to reconcile your payroll, there will, without question, be at least 6 interruptions, 4 personal emergencies, 24 emails, 7 phone calls and a lost packed lunch to deal with.


There is no way that you can plan for the unexpected madness of everyday school happenings but what you can do is leave small pockets of opportunity in your diary to cope with them. Call it what you will (I have regular line management meetings with Brian booked in my diary, even though Brian doesn’t exist) but make sure you leave a booked appointment slot that will buy you back the time you lost when you dealt with all that randomness. The only way to be truly prepared for the things for which you are unprepared is to give yourself a way in which to get that time back. Brian is my personal time machine.


The experienced School Business Leader will tell you that when you have a meeting which needs about 40 minutes worth of prep work, give yourself an hour and a half because within that 40 minutes number of things can and will happen:


  • The fire alarm will go off.
  • An angry neighbour will turn up in reception demanding to speak to the person in charge of pigeons.
  • The local paper will call to ask if the school has any comment to make about the students who have just been fished out of the local pond.
  • The headteacher will arrive to tell you to find £10,000 by the end of the day to fund an urgent school improvement priority they’ve just discovered on the internet.
  • The government announce that the project you were just about to meet to discuss has now been withdrawn, and instead, you should expect the bill for the compulsory movement of all national goal posts to be charged directly to schools instead, via a new school strategy levy.


But it’s not just about the random things that happen throughout the day. School Business Management is about preparing for what might happen in the medium and longer terms too; the complexities of financial planning in a volcanic educational landscape, having the skills and experience to support colleagues though complex and challenging HR cases, writing and managing risk assessments. The security of our buildings, having adequate insurances and protecting our schools from reputational damage are all processes by which we mitigate the risk of unforeseen eventualities. School business leadership is about creating and maintaining the complex infrastructures that keep our schools operating safely and securely, because we know that the unexpected can and will happen. Understanding how to do this is a learned skill, gained through specialist training and experience, so school leaders must ensure that adequate time and funds are set aside for this essential professional development.


So, whilst we may make light of the unpredictable mayhem of school life, make no mistake about the skills, experience and sheer hard work that goes into managing these complex microcosms of our rich and varied society. Keeping hundreds of young people and staff safe, healthy and happy in a confined and bustling environment is a formidable task, and is one that requires the flexibility, creativity and adaptability that is so unique to the school business professional's role.