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Minding our business

A breed of office managers is bringing fresh dynamism to schools and freeing up headteachers, reports Douglas Blane

As part of the national teachers' agreement, business managers are being appointed around the country to manage "bursar, administrative and information and communications technology support to schools".

Previously, headteachers were responsible for all this.

Any suggestion that time will now hang heavily on their hands is not taken seriously. "Oh yes, I can sit around now and do the crossword," comments Balerno High's headteacher, Rory Mackenzie, with considerable irony.

The serious point is that some headteachers enjoy the financial and administrative aspects of the job and regard control of these as a key element in ensuring their school meets its educational objectives. For this style of headteacher the new business managers may be a mixed blessing.

"There is no doubt these tasks can be quite satisfying because you get something finished at the end of the week," says Mr Mackenzie, "whereas trying to move the teaching and learning process along is much more complex.

"In Edinburgh we discussed this and there were a couple of heads keen to hang on to those tasks. But the view of the directorate was clear: it shouldn't be what we are focused on. The headteacher's role is to manage the school strategically, to monitor and evaluate the teaching and learning process, and to make sure the curriculum is being developed."

Business managers have been working in all Edinburgh's secondary schools since the start of the school year and appointments are now being made in the primary sector, where there will be one manager to two schools. Their duties lie in four main areas: planning and overview of finance, personnel management (particularly of support staff), facilities management (all aspects of buildings and maintenance) and an overview of ICT issues.

"It is a big, full-time job and they are members of the senior management team," says Mr Mackenzie. "If you ask who did it before, well, some of it wasn't done, some of it maybe wasn't done well and some of it was done by people who liked doing it but at the cost of not having the time to develop teaching and learning."

In Edinburgh, he explains, a decision was taken to look for degree-level candidates with considerable business - rather than specifically educational - experience, who could bring a new dynamic to senior management teams in schools. "That means they have had a steep learning curve," he says.

Balerno High's business manager is Linda Aitcheson, a finance manager with 14 years' experience in the retail sector. She has already made a significant impact.

"She handled some difficult personnel issues with support staff in ways that we, as teachers, couldn't have done anything like so effectively," says Mr Mackenzie.

"Our bursar is moving on and Linda tackled the whole reorganisation by talking to each person about their strengths, skills and motivations and then moulding the team together. She managed that change process very well."

For Ms Aitcheson, the culture change from commerce to education has been not so much a shock as a series of challenges and a satisfying widening of responsibilities. "I'd become quite specialised in finance at Marks amp; Spencer and although the move was a bit of a risk, there did seem to be a lot of change going on in education, which made it exciting," she says.

"For me, the learning process has been a matter of getting to grips with ways of working that are completely different from what I've been used to.

It's not so much the pace of things, which is similar - everything fast-moving, everyone working to deadlines - more that the strategic elements are not so clear.

"In business you set your strategy, you have objectives that you work towards and then they are reviewed and you move on. It's much more clearly structured.

"I think that's one important area where business managers are bringing something of value to schools."

Another, she says, is personnel. Lack of time means that traditional school managements often simply react to issues and problems, rather than plan ahead and take a strategic view. "I've been able to look at the support staff as a whole and think about what is best for the school and how to stretch people and develop them."

A third key area where Ms Aitcheson foresees added value from business managers is dealing with contractors - "challenging pricing, looking at value for money, making sure they are meeting their contracts" - and she meets colleagues at other schools to discuss such issues. "We now have regular meetings to talk about jobs that are outstanding, what we have been paying, what is not acceptable," she says.

"I think my background gives me a directness that you need in dealing with contractors. It means I'm prepared to say: 'No we're just not having that.'

I don't think that comes so easily to teachers."

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