ISBL Spotlight: Dr Robin Bevan, ISBL Patron, former NEU President and Headteacher at Southend High School for Boys

October 23, 2023

Meet Dr Robin Bevan, ISBL Patron, former NEU President and Headteacher at Southend High School for Boys.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Robin. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your career background? 

I am Robin Bevan, and I currently work as Headteacher at Southend High School for Boys. It’s a role that I began in 2007, having previously been Deputy Head and a Mathematics Faculty Leader in two other Essex schools. I came into teaching as a natural step following a Mathematics degree at Oxford and with a growing interest in working with young people. 

However, teaching wasn’t my first serious job after university. I had worked briefly with the Salvation Army providing activities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds; but also, significantly, I spent a year working in public sector financial administration. Although I had a junior role in the organisation, which was responsible for distributing grant funding to higher education institutions, it was where I began to develop a keen interest in the efficient and effective distribution of public resources for education providers. 

You’re a former president of the National Education Union. What did this role entail, and what were the issues you championed during your tenure? 

Throughout my career, it has always been obvious to me that schools thrive and pupils are at their best when the staff team is respected, rewarded and supported. It was very natural that this mindset led me into trade union representation in a workplace where the management did not seem to be invested in the welfare of employees. I also became aware that many of my colleagues find it difficult to speak up and speak out, especially in challenging circumstances. It was something that I found relatively easy to do, and I tend to think we should always follow where our talents take us. 

Having served on the National Executive of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, I championed the amalgamation with the National Union of Teachers to create Europe’s largest education union, the NEU. I wanted the NEU to be a powerful and reasoned voice for the whole education workforce and was encouraged to put myself forward for the presidential election.

My year as President coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic, which occupied a huge amount of my time, alongside maintaining my role as Headteacher – it really wasn’t the time to take a sabbatical! As a result of the [Government's] disastrous management of schools across Christmas 2020, I found myself in the extraordinary position of chairing an online union meeting at the start of the Spring Term that was attended online by over 400,000 people. It’s probably more than just a coincidence that the next day Boris Johnson changed his public position on school closures. 

What made you join ISBL as a patron? 

From 2012 onwards, school budgets became increasingly tight. As a headteacher, I found myself having to devote more and more time to income generation, resource maximisation and efficient models of delivery. 

Schools should be well run in financial terms, and it takes considerable skill to do this well. The work of school business leaders is incredibly important, skilled and often undervalued. Around the time that the new National Funding Formula was being introduced, I became deeply involved in modelling its impact and in campaigning to eliminate potential flaws. I became a go-to commentator on school funding and finance for many education journalists and started presenting on that theme at national conferences.

The invitation to become a patron of ISBL was an honour that was very easy to accept as I continue to champion the work of the school finance community during a time of renewed and real resource constraint. 

Do you think there is a risk associated with a lack of networking and professional development opportunities across the profession? 

School business leaders often work in relative isolation. They are often the only non-teaching member of a school’s senior leadership team and have one of the broadest ranges of responsibility. When the job is done well, people often don’t notice, but they are swift to object when even the slightest of issues arise. School business leaders carry a considerable burden of responsibility. 

As with any such role, there are huge personal, social and professional benefits in maintaining a strong network with others doing the same job. At the simplest level, it is good just to share the common experiences of the daily job. However, this can easily be strengthened further with a dialogue around different approaches to professional tasks, gaining an insight into alternatives or potential improvements. Despite working extensively with factual, financial information, school business leaders also have to have creative imagination and skilled foresight. 

Taking the opportunity to share the assumptions being used in a budget forecast is an obvious example of immediate benefit arising from a strong network. School business leaders who operate in isolation run the risk of missing new requirements or developments, of feeling an exaggerated weight of responsibility, and may miss out on key innovations. 

How can school business professionals help to shape the future of the profession, and what do you think this should/will look like? 

Every generation of school business professionals stands on the shoulders of their predecessors. Their work is increasingly complex and critical to the efficient and effective operation of thousands of schools. The most important challenge for the profession is to make their work visible so that its centrality is properly understood, especially amongst other education workers and finance professionals. It’s a remarkably rewarding environment for accountancy experts. 

The voice of the school business leadership community must learn to be proactive and become the first port of call for civil servants and policymakers who have not set foot in a school since they left the classroom as a pupil. The collective expertise of school business leaders has considerable potential to influence. 

Finally, as someone with such extensive experience across the field, what would your advice be for someone just starting their school business leadership journey when it comes to networking and professional development? 

At the outset of a new school business leadership career, every new appointee should look to establish local liaison with fellow professionals and national engagement with ISBL. It’s not a job to do solo, and networking time must be diarised and protected. Networking and professional development opportunities almost always repay many times over the time invested with gains in expertise, efficiency or renewed confidence. We all spend many hours every week in our workplace roles. It makes sense that those hours should be as rewarding as possible, and the key to that is professional growth.