A financial friend can pay dividends

25th April 2008 at 01:00
With school budgets growing ever larger and more complex, a new generation of financially astute managers is in great demand, reports Yojana Sharma
With school budgets growing ever larger and more complex, a new generation of financially astute managers is in great demand, reports Yojana Sharma

Every new government initiative brings a raft of extra tasks for leadership teams: schools must handle their own budgets, but who deals with procurement or support staff?

The Prime Minister announces a programme to rebuild every primary school in England. Who deals with the architects and contractors? Extended schools with breakfast clubs and extra curricular activities will mean new administrative challenges. Who handles it all? The headteacher? The deputy head? The school secretary?

Schools often find it pays to have a business manager. Devolution of budgets, which began under Margaret Thatcher, first put the responsibility for finances squarely on the head's shoulders. Bursars, common in independent schools, began to appear in the state sector.

"As a head, I would definitely want to delegate finance," says Stephen Orman, who leads a federation of CofE primary schools in Bournemouth. "Very few schools will have the local authority running that side of things."

Schools can also benefit from someone with experience of putting contracts out to tender, and who can research price comparisons and negotiate with suppliers.

"I have seen cases of heads taking on ludicrous contracts because they don't understand them," says Michael Unsworth, business manager at the Kingfisher Community Special School in Oldham.

Mr Unsworth came to schools from corporate banking. But now, he says, finance is less than 20 per cent of his work. Facilities management, human resources - particularly managing support staff and health and safety compliance - have become part of the mix. Extended schools and the Government's green agenda will add to it.

Many heads realised the need for a business manager only when a building programme or school amalgamation loomed. And there is more to come. "After some good years, school funding has been below inflation. That means schools are increasingly having to look at efficiency and value for money," says William Simmonds, chief executive of the National Association of Bursars.

There will also be more emphasis on making better use of resources and facilities. Business managers report that they can drive down supplier rates by buying as a group of schools, so they often co-operate within local areas. But they also compete.

Sue Thompson, of Athalston Community Primary in Leeds, has added marketing to her responsibilities: "We have to make ourselves saleable in a local area that is seeing a decline in rolls. It is important to be out there to be seen as one of the best schools," she says.

Bursars often had a banking or accountancy background. But new responsibilities typically mean only a third of their time is spend on financial management.

Even the National Association of Bursars voted last week to change its name to the National Association of School Business Managers. Mr Simmonds says: "It is terminology that describes the job more closely and more accurately reflects the full role."

National College for School Leadership (NCSL) figures show the number of school business managers or their equivalent has nearly doubled in the past decade, from around 4,000 in 1997 to more than 7,400 in 2007.

So who steps into the job? Four out of five are women, and this reflects the most common route - starting as school secretary - which means upskilling is important.

The NCSL runs a school business manager certificate scheme, a diploma, and is about to launch an advanced diploma. Manchester Metropolitan University has a unique BA in school business management (SBM) so popular it has a waiting list.

"The emphasis on accreditation and qualification is important", says Roy Morecroft, course director at Manchester Metropolitan. "It lends credibility to the post of school business manager."

But school finances should not be seen as a matter to be handled by amateurs, however gifted they may be. Janice Hughes, former school secretary, is business manager at Stanley Special School in Chingwall, Wirral, and will graduate with the Manchester Metropolitan BA this summer.

"It's been a hard slog, a real achievement for me," she says. She began with the business manager certificate, which "opened up the role completely".

"I saw the different areas I could step into and thought: 'I can do that'," she says. "Now I step in for the head on extended schooling, draw up school travel plans and so on. I doubt there would have been the momentum in the school if I did not do it. The head did not have time."

According to research for the NCSL by management consultants McKinsey, up to 30 per cent of a head's time could be liberated by higher-level business managers. Nine out of 10 secondary schools now have one, and a quarter of them have the SBM certificate. One in six has the diploma, which involves more strategic planning. In the primary sector, 39 per cent of business managers have the certificate, and one in 10 the diploma.

Unlike the secondary sector, most primary schools still do not have access to their own business manager or even a share of one. But the NCSL is about to launch an advanced diploma for managers looking after clusters of primaries who can't afford their own SBM.

The salary for a school business manager ranges from pound;30,000 to pound;60,000, according to the National Association of Bursars.

The majority of those who go in for the qualifications are already working in schools. In particular, former school secretaries often need an academic boost to be regarded as on a par with the all-graduate teaching profession.

Some former secretaries see no salary increase if they stay at their current schools. But some say that taking the qualifications gives them the confidence to try for posts that are better paid.

Manchester Metropolitan is to offer an MA for those who aspire even higher and want to become school business directors. Business managers do not have the samepowers as some bursars in the private sector, who are often on a par with heads and answer directly to school governors.

"School business managers want to be paid on the leadership spine, probably comparable with a deputy head," says Mr Simmonds.

Mr Unsworth, who will graduate this summer with the Manchester degree, says: "I can see the day when they will be on a shared executive status as the head,"

The time may come when young people choose school business management as a career path, beginning with the degree. "We are all working to try to make it look more of a profession that young people would want," says Mr Simmonds.

QUALIFICATIONS FOR SCHOOL BUSINESS MANAGERS

- Certificate of School Business Management (CSBM)

A one-year course for recently appointed school business managers, or those who want to enter the profession. It includes school-based projects.

- Diploma of School Business Management (DSBM)

A one-year course for more experienced school business managers. It provides more strategic skills and includes school-based projects and a dissertation.

- Advanced Diploma (ADSBM)

A newly launched course for those working with a group of schools or in a federation. It offers more strategic training, including organisational and performance management skills.

- School Business Director

A proposed qualification for controlling the finances of bigger groups of schools or partnerships of schools.

- BA (Hons) in School Business Management

A three-year course at Manchester Metropolitan University. A CSBM gives you exemptions in year 1, while a DSBM allows exemptions in year 2.

- MA in School Business Management

About to be launched at Manchester Metropolitan University.

See www.ncsl.org.uk for more on bursar development.

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