Shared business managers take a load off Bristol primary headteachers

Peter Bentley went back to the classroom last year. Not as a returning teacher or supply cover, but as head of the school he's been running for 15 years.

Mr Bentley, head of Westbury-on-Trym primary in north Bristol, took charge of specially-targeted groups of pupils. "In previous years, I wouldn't have been able to do that," he says. "My mind is focused now on teaching and learning rather than meetings."

He has also been able to keep a closer eye on his colleagues' teaching. He could do it because he handed most of his administrative workload to a school business manager - one of a team of three working across eight primaries.

Bursars and business managers are familiar sights in secondary schools, but most primaries are too small to afford them. Schools in the Opportunity Network group - one of the National College for School Leadership's networked learning communities - realised that the answer lay in joint action.

Westbury's business manager is Laurence Frewin, an escapee from 17 years in banking who decided he needed a new challenge. He spends three days a fortnight at each of his three schools.

"It's been a lot more challenging than I expected," he admits. "Coming from the commercial world you have perceptions that working in school might be more straightforward than it is in reality."

The business managers sit on their schools' senior management teams, with a remit that includes buildings and grounds, finance and personnel matters.

The initiative has been timely. Bristol schools are currently struggling with an overhaul of health and safety practices.

Then there are the complexities of the ongoing Single Status contract negotiations - harmonising pay and conditions - which involves non-teaching staff across the country. Mr Frewin says he has been able to bear some of the brunt - and being part of a team of bursars has had its benefits.

"Working across a number of schools, we've got a greater voice in the local education authority."

He also has the time to chase up tardy contractors with more vigour than a head might. Managers have spotted overcharging in cleaning contracts and have organised a cable telephone system to replace overhead wires which had been cut by vandals.

They also found missing funds in LEA accounts, including an unclaimed Pounds 8,000 to take an extra teacher over the threshold. And the three business managers can use their joint buying power to get better deals from suppliers.

The pressure is on to produce those savings. The DfES, Bristol LEA and the network have together contributed pound;340,000 to get the ball rolling, but the managers must be self-financing by 2005-6 if they are to continue beyond the three-year pilot.

The DfES is keeping an eye on results and believes it could provide a model for the workforce reforms.

Mr Bentley believes the benefits can already be seen and are not purely financial, thanks to his ability now to focus on the classroom. "A head needs to know what's going on in the classroom," he says. "We've had our best academic results in Year 6 ever. That may be for a number of reasons, but the business manager has obviously been an element."

Nic Barnard

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