Leader in Focus: Marcus Adams

When Marcus Adams left his management job in the retail sector twenty years ago to become a part-time administrator at Bucknall Primary School, little did he know the journey his new path would take him on. “I had taken a conscious decision to step away from a pretty cut throat and competitive industry” says Marcus “to instead use my skills to support a small-rural primary school for around six hours a week. I had a small-holding and it was a fairly sedate lifestyle for a little while!” That was all about to change.

Marcus’ arrival in the sector coincided with some key developments in how schools were being run. “It became clear early on that schools – including our own – were taking on more and more responsibility for the ‘back office’ work. In the first few years it became clear that we were expected to do more in terms of HR, site management, and managing the finances. There was also more in the way of regulation and legislation – such as fire risk assessment and legionella Things began to snowball and most of the sector was not prepared.”

Other local schools began to hear of Marcus’ role at Bucknall and the fact that his experience had proved to be hugely beneficial for the school and its teachers in managing the increasing workload and responsibilities. “They knew that I was doing limited hours, and I soon received offers to provide support – either on a one-off basis or on a more permanent basis – to other local schools as well.” By 2004, Marcus was working across three schools, Bucknall, New York Primary and now also Baumber Primary which had federated with Bucknall. This increased his commitment to three days in total, which soon became four when he also agreed to provide one day’s support to Middle Rasen Primary.

“At this point in time” says Marcus, “the role of School Business Manager did not exist. There was no recognition of the role – although some schools did have a bursar. Yet, there were growing numbers of us who were doing the SBM role! It was professional work, and in some of the schools I was advising the head and supporting on issues such as budget planning, staff restructuring, and ensuring that we were meeting statutory responsibilities. There were many other colleagues emerging who were doing the same thing – so we took the opportunity to form the cluster group.”

“The cluster group has been absolutely essential for us to get to grips with and to share ideas on the increasing responsibilities and legislation that we have to face.”

The cluster group – at that time known as the ‘administrators’ cluster group’ – was formed to provide a forum of mutual support for administrators working in a number of Lincolnshire schools. “It’s been absolutely essential for us to get to grips with and to share ideas on the increasing responsibilities and legislation that we have to face. Over time the group has become even more essential as the job has become more challenging.”

One key area in which the group provided impetus in the early days was in terms of encouraging and giving administrators the confidence to undertake professional qualifications for business management. “One member of the group took the plunge and enrolled on the Certificate in School Business Management with the National College” says Marcus, “and she was very willing to share the process with us, what the course involved, and the kind of tasks and assessments she was undertaking. Through that we all gained the confidence to do the programme, not least because we were able to support one another through it. Gradually, more and more of the group were recognised professionally as SBMs, and a number have undertaken the Diploma in School Business Management.”

Marcus continued to work across a number of schools. What became evident is that partnership working was achieving efficiencies and better value for money at a number of levels. “From the perspective of the schools I have worked across, each was able to afford someone of business manager level-expertise (despite their size and small budgets) because they were each able to access me for a limited number of hours per week. It’s a model that has worked well until now, and we’ve been able to access good deals with suppliers across the schools because of the purchasing power a shared SBM can use. So the SBM job – at least until recently – has been sustainable for the schools involved where it may not have necessarily been so, and they’ve been able to achieve some economies of scale in the bargain.”

“As a group we have been able to engage with suppliers in a far better way. We contact suppliers and we ask them to visit our group meetings to present on their offer, what they do to provide best value, and to discuss options in terms of price.”

However, Marcus and his colleagues are also demonstrating how economies of scale have been achieved at an even greater level through locality wide partnerships. “As a group we have been able to engage with suppliers in a far better way. We contact suppliers and we ask them to visit our group meetings to present on their offer, what they do to provide best value, and to discuss options in terms of price. This gives us an opportunity to ask the right questions of the suppliers as a group and also to negotiate as a group – because we are bringing the power of joint purchasing to the table. In recent months we’ve engaged with suppliers on introducing new phone systems and health and safety support services – all in response to the needs of schools and members of the group. I believe we’ve made some very informed purchasing decisions and achieved some good savings.”

Looking to the future, Marcus is very frank about the challenges and the need for schools to shift their mindsets. “For many schools these are very challenging times. We can’t afford to be making purchasing decisions alone where we can achieve better savings by working together. So, as schools and as business managers we need to be thinking hard about how well we are collaborating and whether we are being open enough about our contracts, our purchasing needs, our budgets, and how – bearing all of that in mind – we can achieve more strategic procurement . The days of working in isolation are over, we simply can’t do the job well without collaboration.”

Marcus has welcomed the advice and some of the new procurement frameworks provided by central government, however, he is also clear that strategic local procurement between local schools is an option every school should regularly consider: “The national frameworks are a good step and it’s important schools are aware of them and make the most of them. However, there is a lot to be said of schools engaging – collectively – with local suppliers who can provide a very responsive service and who are also contributing to the local economy and our communities. Our schools have very different needs, so the one size fits all approach only goes so far, and we expect all our suppliers to recognise the diversity of our schools and to commit to high levels of ongoing customer service.”

“It’s an uncertain time, however, we have to plan as far as possible because if we don’t the challenges are only likely to get harder.”

There is no doubt that the sector is facing a challenging time. For Marcus, he feels that for those schools that face falling rolls and tighter budgets, there is a particular need to think strategically about sharing staff and resources. However, for all schools, it is important that they plan – as much as possible – for the next three to five years, taking into account changes to the curriculum, changes in pupil numbers, anticipated capital spend and more. “Those discussions must be a regular feature of the head and business managers’ meetings. It’s an uncertain time, however, we have to plan as far as possible because if we don’t the challenges are only likely to get harder. For business managers that means working together and sharing ideas and intelligence so that we can continue to support our schools to manage the challenges ahead.”

See our interview with Marcus Adams on the Kyra TSA youtube channel