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Sharon Bell: Ten years as an independent charity

05 Dec 2022 Voices

The chief executive of Services For Education, winner of the arts, culture and heritage category in the 2022 Charity Awards, discusses the charity’s first 10 years since breaking away from a local council.

Whilst many of the UK’s oldest charities – some dating back to the fifth century – are focused on education, at Services For Education (SFE) we are very young in comparison – as in 2022-23 we celebrate our 10th birthday.

Charities ‘come into being’ in several different ways. SFE’s roots are perhaps a little more unusual than some in that before being a registered charity and company limited by guarantee, we were previously three departments within Birmingham City Council (music service, learning and assessment services and health education).

The concept of establishing a separate organisation – a charity – began to be explored two-years earlier. Combining three disparate elements, albeit sharing a common purpose of education, was not that easy. Birmingham’s music service had a long and successful history – making a significant impact on the lives of the young people of the city. There was rising concern that with growing pressure on council budgets, the future for music, along with the prospects for delivering learning, assessment, and health education, may be at risk – or at best look very different.

Our predecessors began to consider what a different model might look like, and together with those who became our earliest group of trustees, set about securing the future of our varied services for the years to come.

Breaking away as a charity

I joined SFE as chief executive in October 2019, so I didn’t live through the transition period – but many colleagues who work with us today, were here pre-SFE and so have seen the organisation evolve over the years. Process, purpose and people are widely referred to within leadership thinking as key components within organisational design – and developing our thinking on each of these has been critical.

Processes and procedures needed to be in place from day one – there were no longer any council departments to turn to in the long term (albeit that there was helpfully some transitional support provided by Birmingham City Council). It was the complexities of some of these, particularly in the pensions sphere, that delayed the initial spin out.

No longer part of the largest local authority in Europe, SFE had to consider how it wanted to present itself – brand and identity needed to come at the forefront of our thinking – as did purpose. Big questions like ‘what are we here for’ needed to be answered. Over the past 10 years that purpose has crystallised – we use the power of learning and of music to transform and enhance the lives of children, young people, adults and our wider communities. We encourage all colleagues, in every role, to consider how they contribute to this.

Chatting with colleagues who were part of SFE ‘before’ and ‘after’, in those early days, the impact of the change was minimal. However, over the years, the drive to build and develop SFE’s own unique culture has become increasingly important – and is a key priority today for those in the senior leadership team and our board of trustees.

As with all organisations, we experienced numerous challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic – and added a fourth ‘p’ to the framework. The passion of our colleagues shone through, and they were determined to re-invent our offer so that our customers and the children didn’t lose out. This was the moment where I think it truly registered with some colleagues, that we were in control of our own destiny. It was their passion and determination, combined with being a grateful recipient of funding from Arts Council England via the Cultural Recovery Fund, that ensured we are still here today.

Uncertain times for the sector

As with all other charities, we are facing rising costs; our main customer segment, schools, are navigating their own budgetary challenges – and importantly colleagues are dealing with the personal repercussions of the cost-of-living crisis. I think this poses an additional problem within the sector – individuals are generally drawn to the sector because of their passion for a cause and a drive to make a difference. However, it is likely that leadership teams within charities are having to spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about the numbers, the optimum structures and funding models – all to ensure that they are viable in the long term and able to continue to do the amazing work that they do.

Having the four ‘p’s in place, I am confident that having built strong foundations capable of weathering current and future storms, we can continue to ensure that our aim of ensuring that the power of music and learning will continue to have a positive impact on so many lives and that we will be here for our communities to celebrate our next anniversary, and for many years to come. It would be satisfying to think that with the passage of time we might eventually join the ranks of those charitable education institutions that go back many centuries before us.

Sharon Bell is chief executive of Services For Education as well as chair of RenewWellbeing and a board member of Miss Macaroon CIC

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