ISBL Spotlight: Jonny Coates, Trustee

January 5, 2024

Meet ISBL Trustee Jonny Coates, Head of Business and Financial Support Services at Nicholas Postgate Catholic Academy Trust.

Thank you for sitting down with us, Jonny. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your career so far in education?

I started out in Financial Services and worked at a bank for five years in the early 2000s and then at a building society, but that didn’t really work out after the banking crisis. I then moved on to the Department for Work and Pensions, helping people find new careers and pathways, and came across the school business profession. At the time, I didn’t really know what it was, but it looked really interesting, so I found out a bit more about the role and went to visit some schools that were advertising for a ‘School  Business Manager’.

From there, I had a successful interview at a small primary school in Newcastle in 2010, and I’ve been in the profession ever since. I didn’t really know what to expect long-term, but it’s been a really interesting journey to get to where I am now: Head of Business and Financial Support Services for a large multi-academy trust of 38 schools.

Head of Business and Financial Support Services for 38 schools sounds quite challenging! Can you tell us more about what your role entails?

It’s quite a large and challenging role; previously, I was the Chief Operating Officer at an academy trust of five schools, so this was a bit of a step up in terms of scale. Under my remit are business services, trust exchequer services, trust-wide procurement and contract management as well as catering for the trust. I have four regional trust business managers and 18 trust business managers reporting to me, and they’re deployed across our 38 schools. I also line-manage the exchequer services manager, procurement and contracts manager, and trust executive chef. There’s also risk management, commercial insurance and employee benefits, so it’s quite a broad role in terms of responsibility.

I’ve got a really great team behind me, and they’re all very skilled at what they do. The trust business managers line-manage our business support colleagues, formerly known as admin, which is a centralised function – a slightly different model to some trusts. Its purpose is to support school leaders with the day-to-day running of the school, and it works well for us, and we can provide progression pathways as the trust is so large. We’re spread across Teesside in the north-east, North Yorkshire and the City of York itself, too. There are six secondaries and 32 primaries, and we also have a dual denomination school; we’re a Catholic Trust, but one of our schools is Catholic and Church of England. In all, it’s a very big operation, but we’ve found our model works really well for us. The trust prides itself on listening to feedback, stakeholder engagement and reflecting on how we do things as an organisation in order to provide the best possible services to support and maximise pupil experience and thus outcomes.

When you first started out as a school business professional, did you know that you wanted to get into senior leadership?

Not at all – when I first started out, the landscape was very different; academies weren’t such a big thing in the north-east back in 2010, and the ones that did exist were quite small, so things like central services didn’t really exist on the scale they do now.

I have been part of a senior leadership team since 2012, and it was around five years ago when I started out on a journey to reach executive leadership in a role such as a CFO/COO, and I got there pretty quickly. I then decided that I would like to work at scale for a larger organisation, and I was intrigued by the variety and number of people I’d get to work with. At NPCAT, there are 1,600 staff members and around 13,000 pupils, and that’s quite a big jump from the 120 pupils and 22 staff in my first SBM job!

Starting out as a business manager helped me enormously because I can relate to the business managers that I now line-manage when they’re dealing with difficult issues on a school level. Sometimes, roles in central services can be quite difficult because you’ve got people who don’t have experience in a school and they don’t really know or aren’t able to fully grasp the reality of the situation – they don’t know what they don’t know. At NPCAT, we have a balance of skilled professionals, many of whom have previously worked in a school or who have supported schools on a day-to-day basis and really understand the complexities, uniqueness and variety of needs based on demographic, phase and size.

What made you join ISBL?

I wanted to give something back to the community because over the years that I’ve developed as a school business professional, I’ve built up a network and had a lot of support from people. I really wanted to try and help other people in a similar position who wanted to develop or even just had some queries or needed some support.

ISBL is the professional body for school business professionals, there really is no one else who is doing what they do. Professional development is really important to me, and I use the ISBL Professional Standards to aid with development and training for everybody in the business services function. There weren't really those opportunities before, and without the support of ISBL, I’d be on my own trying to embed that from scratch.

I also want to help raise awareness of what our profession really is as a career path because I didn’t know what it was 15 years ago, and it’s such a broad and interesting opportunity. Internally, we’ve implemented events like TBM forums where we can share best practice, talk about development pathways and how we are supporting our schools, deliver practical masterclasses, and provide lots of updates with stakeholder interaction related to a variety of central services areas.

ISBL has helped in terms of raising the profile of the profession, linking up with key stakeholder groups and ensuring that representation is there and our voice is heard, but also in recognising that, as we grow, we need to bring new people into the profession. If we don’t, then we're going to struggle in terms of recruitment going forward. At NPCAT, we've brought in a new aspiring business manager programme following a discussion with a local trust, Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust, who had introduced the same, and we have this summer promoted a number of people within the business services team. We’re also establishing a pathway with qualifications attached to it in the trust, such as level 3 customer service skills training, level 4 School Business Professional Apprenticeship Programme, and AAT at levels 2, 3 and 4, so we’re really investing in the experience of staff at different levels, and it's all supported through the professional standards.

You’re currently a Trustee at ISBL; can you tell us a bit about how Trustees are helping to direct ISBL’s strategy and achieve the goals you’ve highlighted, such as raising the profile of the profession and helping school business professionals tackle the challenges they experience today?

I think the main thing is that there's an open, honest dialogue on the board, which is made up of a variety of skill sets and experiences. It means that we can all hear the different solutions being put forward and we can start to discuss which might be best as a way forward and the potential challenges and pitfalls of each. It’s very open, and we’re discussing very live issues; it could be workload, retention and recruitment, or other pressures.

I think a crucial part of getting that right is that a lot of people on the board are practitioners, so we’ve got first-hand experience of dealing with challenges in similar environments, and we’re able to see what’s missing in potential solutions from a very ground-level perspective.

What makes the board so great is that we have that variety of different voices, all listening to each other and able to have a frank discussion to thrash things out and create thought-out strategies. And we’re always evolving; as the education landscape evolves, and our profession with it, we’re changing as well. Our job isn’t to just create a single strategy and then sit back; this is a journey, and we take each challenge as it comes in a positive and constructive way.

Can our members get involved and help to overcome the challenges our industry faces? If so, how?

Absolutely, there’s a lot members can do to get involved. The first thing I’d say is communicate with us; there are plenty of different channels you can use to talk to us about anything, whether you’re looking for advice or you’re struggling with a certain issue, or even if you have ideas about how we can develop the profession. Our door is always open, and it’s so important for our members to have a voice. We’re here to listen and to help and support, but we need input from all of our stakeholders to be able to do that successfully, so don’t hesitate to get in touch at any point.

If you want to get more involved, there’s the Fellowship route that you can apply to and, if successful, take part in various projects and offer peer-to-peer support. It’s a bit more hands-on, as Fellows are recognised as leaders in our profession, but it’s well worth doing if you’ve got the experience and want to get more involved in promoting the school business profession.

What advice would you give to someone looking to start their journey to becoming a school business professional?

It might be on the nose, but ISBL is a great starting point! There are plenty of options out there when it comes to school business management because the role is so varied depending upon the organisation, whether it’s a primary, secondary, special, alternative provision, etc. And that’s great, but it can get a bit confusing.

To start with, take a look at the ISBL Professional Standards. These are a great way of understanding the skills and requirements needed for a career in school business management, and we’re soon going to be introducing a self-assessment tool that will allow people to see what level they’re currently working at and what is required for them to get to the next level.

The next step is to talk to people. Reach out on social media to people in the profession currently and ask questions – they’re the people who are going to be best placed to tell you what working in this profession is like! For instance, there’s an ISBL group on LinkedIn, but there are lots of other places like that where you can reach out and find out more.

One thing I would recommend to anyone who has seen a role advertised is to find out as much as you can about the school or trust themselves as well because each organisation can take a different approach and seeing the school and understanding what their vision is can help to frame expectations for the job. 

Try to speak to the head teacher or the leadership team if possible and ask them what they want for their school, what they want to achieve, and how they see this role supporting that goal. If it’s a multi-academy trust, have a look online and see if they have their organisational structure published – that could give you an indication of what type of business professional they’re looking for and which areas are the focus.

There are a lot of career opportunities out there for school business professionals – it all comes down to finding out what it is that you really want to do and then exploring on that basis.