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Taking care of business

Balancing the books is no easy task. Steven Hastings reports on a pilot course that gives the bursar's job the recognition it deserves Like many bursars, Jacqueline McGeady started out as a clerical assistant. As her career progressed, so did the sums of money she handled. When she found herself in charge of the pound;4 million budget at Beardwood high school in Blackburn, Lancashire, she decided it was probably time to get some training.

Now, after completing an MBA in education management at the University of Lincoln, she finds herself in the role of trainer, as one of the course tutors on a new bursar development course run by the National College of School Leadership.

The number of bursars has grown as schools have become more business-like and pressures on headteachers have intensified. The development course, a fully funded Department for Education and Skills pilot scheme, is designed to help, especially newcomers who have been in their jobs for less than five years. And Ms McGeady hopes it will also help the growing number of support staff who already perform some aspects of the bursar's role, often as part of general secretarial duties. The aim is to prepare them for fully fledged bursarship, so they don't find themselves thrown in at the deep end, as she was.

"This is long overdue," she says. "The role of bursar is demanding, and you can't expect people just to pick it up as they go along. Having responsibility for huge sums of cash might sound fun, but it is incredibly stressful. Dealing with money always is."

But there's more to being a bursar than just balancing the books. The emphasis of the development course will be on managing people and premises, not just purse strings. "Finance will be one of the modules," says course designer Fergus O'Sullivan of the University of Lincoln. "But anyone doing the bursar's job is probably getting the finance right already. If they weren't, they'd have been fired."

The course will focus instead on a wide range of management responsibilities, including staff development, catering, advertising, health and safety, and provision of ICT facilities - all areas that might, or might not, come under the bursarial umbrella. Modern-day bursars come in all shapes and sizes - from those earning up to pound;60,000 a year for asset management and strategic planning, to those whose time is spread thinly between half-a-dozen small primary schools, ordering stationery and settling bills.

"We don't want to standardise the role of the bursar," says Mr O'Sullivan. "Every school has its own needs. But participants on the course will be made aware of how business management can extend into every area of school life."

Bursars often get a bad name for keeping a firm grip on the school wallet. In reality, he says, a good bursar enjoys keeping people happy - by spending money. A desire to provide for the school and its staff as best as resources allow should be at the heart of the bursar's work.

The pilot started last month and will run for six months with 100 bursars representing a range of schools and backgrounds. Their progress will be closely monitored, with plenty of opportunity for feedback. Another 450 training places will be available next year.

Most tutoring will take place online to allow participants to work at their own pace. It will also minimise time spent out of school - although the group will meet together on a handful of days.

It was this flexibility that persuaded Christine Richardson from York to join up. Her working life is already hectic enough - acting as bursar to six primary schools, spending at least half a day a week at each. The 12 hours a week she expects to dedicate to the course represent just another piece of scheduling.

"Operating in so many schools means that you have to learn to focus," she says. "If you don't concentrate on one job at a time it can be very confusing. I rely on a laptop, an efficient filing system and a larger-than-usual briefcase."

The Government is keen to expand the number of these "travelling bursars", seeing them as an economical way to spread expertise through smaller schools. Like her course tutor Jacqueline McGeady, Ms Richardson fell into the profession almost by chance. She started as a general administrator in a small school where budgeting was just one part of the job. But she found her financial skills in demand, and, with the support of her local authority, began to specialise.

So why are so many bursars promoted from within? Statistically, more than one in two are already involved in education, usually as support staff. Is it because schools struggle to attract highly qualified managers or accountants from outside the profession? "Bluntly, yes," admits Mr O'Sullivan, although he says the recent economic downturn has brought many enquiries from owners of small businesses. "Some schools accept that to attract an educational resources manager they will need to offer an appropriate salary. Others aim to get someone on the cheap - and they're the ones that struggle to recruit."

One key component of the course will address ethics, probity and the law, as bursars need to be constantly aware that the cash they spend - at least in maintained schools - is public money. "It's an important issue," says Mr O'Sullivan. "A bursar's accounting can be creative, but only within certain bounds. You can't put aside money for the children of tomorrow, for example, if elected officials have earmarked that money for the children of today. Even if saving it would be the prudent thing to do."

Much of the material for the programme has been adapted from sources in the United States, where bursarship dates back to the 1800s. Mr O'Sullivan admits that the USis still "very much ahead of us" in providing appropriate professional development. But he also believes the bursar development programme is a step in the right direction. In fact, he likes everything about the course except its title.

"The word 'bursar' is outdated. I prefer 'school business manager'. In five years' time bursars will be doing the same job as a chief executive or managing director, providing the business infrastructure to allow quality learning - so let's give them the respect they deserve."

NCSL: www.ncsl.org.uk. For further information, telephone Nicola Robertson on 08701 601 604. MBAs in education management are run by the International Institute for Educational Leadership at the University of Lincoln. Enquiries: Rebecca Inkley on 01522 886206

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