Look and you’ll find the silver lining

Silver linings can be found amongst the grimness, says Lorraine Ashover of Minerva Procurement Consultancy.

I wanted this month’s blog to look at the brighter side of the pandemic, but a story that a school business manager client told me earlier this month made me think that I’d set myself too difficult a target.

On the same day she was dealing with the first Covid case in her school she discovered that a school building had sprung a serious leak in a torrential downpour. When their maintenance people went to examine the damage – the floor was under a foot of water – they discovered that the room contained…. you’ve guessed it, asbestos.

Trouble does indeed come in legions, and you can rely on SBMs to deal with it.

SBMs really are the unsung heroes of this crisis. Headteachers are quite rightly getting lots of plaudits but it must be said that schools would simply not operate safely and remain open if it weren’t for skills, knowledge and sheer can-do of SBMs (and all the support team around them) and we should celebrate that.

They go about their business under the radar most of the time. In smaller schools where they don’t have the benefit of large teams, they are having to handle things on their own.

Despite it all, there are some glimmers of light to be found amongst the storm clouds. Most SBMs have discovered that flexible working, with at least one day a week working from home, can work and work well. It’s an approach that will give them a breather and some headspace away from school, so they are not at the behest of everyone all the time. It should provide SBMs with a better shot at a work-life balance in the longer term.  So if you’re not already doing this, give it a shot.

It’s also been a time where we’ve finally realised that technology can cut out some physical meetings. I know of several governing bodies that have moved all of their meetings online and seem unlikely to go back to physical meetings because it allows them to transact the same amount of business in less time.

There have been some positive changes in the procurement process too. Here at Minerva we moved all of our presentation days for prospective contract bidders online. The only area of school services where this doesn’t work quite as well is catering – food tasting is an important part of the process and you can’t easily do that remotely! But for cleaning, ICT, payroll and the like it’s easily done on Zoom. Not only is it just as efficient – for one thing, it takes less time – but you can also record the presentation sessions to refer to later on. And there’s no need for reams of minutes.

Some SBMs might see the need to film operations for a virtual site visit as just another job on an already long list, but it doesn’t need to be like that. If your site team are already carrying out a routine inspection of the facilities, for example, then it takes them no more time to film it at the same time.  This gives bidders a much needed visual of the school site and fabric which really helps when bidding remotely.

The pandemic has increased our awareness of the struggles that some people in the community face. Unemployment and wage cuts are a reality for a growing number of families. Those of us who work in schools will be more aware than many of these problems and will have already started conversations about what we can do to help. I know of several SBMs who are working with their catering supplier to make sure that unsold pre-packaged foods such as sandwiches and pasta pots are available to students and staff at heavily discounted prices at the end of the school day. Others are in touch with local foodbanks to explore ways of directing unsold food to their users. If you’re unsure what your options are just speak to your catering operator. They will be more than happy to help because they’ll be as keen as you to avoid throwing away food that could feed a family cheaply or even for free.

Another positive to emerge out of this crisis is a renewed enthusiasm for networking. Finding strength, support and advice amongst your professional peers has always been popular with school business professionals and their appetite for this has increased since the beginning of the pandemic. We set up SBM networking groups for Oxfordshire and Berkshire some years ago and interest has never been higher. We are keen to establish groups in other areas if there is a need. With our friends from theEducationCollective we have created an online meeting space with a message board, useful documents, a learning zone with links to professional development resources and also set up a calendar of regular meetings. We also organise the speakers and the topics and buy in specialist training that can be accessed at low cost to each school.  Finding time to be there for one another has never been more important and it’s great to see SBM colleagues supporting one another throughout.

It’s difficult to convince SBMs that they need to think about themselves as well, but the final silver lining is that they are more conscious of the need to set aside some time for their own recovery. You have to fill your own cup from time to time – if you don’t then you will fall down and won’t be able to help anyone. I think SBMs have always known that, but the pressures of the job – and their own sense of duty – has got in the way. Christmas will soon come into view, however, so if we can keep it going for the next few weeks there should be some precious time off as our reward.

Lorraine Ashover is managing director of Minerva Procurement Consultancy Services Limited. Focused exclusively on the school sector, Minerva has helped schools tender £85 million worth of contracts and generated more than £2.5 million of revenue, refunds and ongoing annual savings for its clients over the past four years. A new edition of Minerva’s free e-book, 84 Points for a Perfect Procurement Process, is available at https://minervapcs.com/contact/

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