A head for figures

25th April 1997 at 01:00
Angela Smith is a woman with a mission. The 27-year-old left a career with a leading firm of accountants to become bursar at a grant-maintained comprehensive, and hopes to become a headteacher within 10 years.

It's an ambitious plan, given that the traditional route to a headship involves several years in the classroom and steady progression up the promotional ladder.

"I realise that to be head you have to understand what education is all about and to be able to deal with teachers and children," she says. "But the role is basically like that of the chief executive of a company, dealing with the kind of issues I am responsible for now - personnel, finances, contracts - but in a more strategic role.

"A lot of the things we take for granted in schools should be questioned. It could help to have someone in a position of leadership from a different background."

If successful, Angela, whose official job title at Avon Valley school in Rugby is senior finance officer, could become one of the first of a new breed of headteacher to come from a non-teaching background.

Her attitude highlights how much the bursar's job has changed in recent years, and how management of schools is being radically restructured. Traditionally responsible largely for collecting the dinner money and sorting out invoices from the council, local management of schools, competitive enrolment and increased parent power has meant that the bursar now often holds a far more important position - and is sometimes responsible for budgets comparable to those of a medium-sized company.

As a stepping stone to her future, last September Angela began a course aimed at promoting the role of the bursar.The University of Lincolnshir e and Humberside's two-year MBA in education management consists of five three-day residential sessions followed by a dissertation. It focuses on management skills and aims to turn bursars into full members of their school management teams.

Compared to the low-level, short courses in basic skills at the local college that are traditionally available to bursars, the MBA course, thought to be the only one of its kind, is a breakthrough.

"We've tried to recognise the technical complexity of the job nowadays," says course leader Fergus O'Sullivan. "Because of the devolution of power to schools, what used to be done by the local education authority is often now done at school level, and as the role of the head has become more strategic, so the bursar has become more important."

The 17 members of the first intake - numbers are set to increase next year - include several qualified accountants, former officers in the forces, and some who, like Angela, have quit the commercial and industrial worlds for education. Applicants are expected to have at least two or three years' experience working as a bursar.

Lena Donovan, bursar at the 500-pupil Blenheim primary school in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, is responsible for 10 staff, including cleaners, administrators and the caretaker. After several years as school secretary, she was given her new job shortly after the introduction of local management of schools. "You have to have skills in all aspects of running the school, " she says. "Local management means the head has to become something like a chief executive, making the overall strategic decisions. The bursar is there to take charge of the financial and management aspects of the operation. You have to be conversant with contracts, personnel issues, health and safety and managing the premises."

As an example of the difference a bursar can make, Lena tells how her school now makes around #163;25,000 a year through renting out its hall. The school is also using a #163;16,500 Sports Council grant to improve its swimming pool which it will then let out, generating yet more income.

But involving senior staff from non-educational backgrounds in top-level decision-making is bound to provoke fears among some teachers that their future is being decided by people without a proper academic perspective.

Bursars on the MBA course reject such fears. "Our job is to advise on the financial implications of any decision, not to decide educational policy," one says. "We can remind the management team and the teachers, for example,that they can decide either to employ more teachers to cut class sizes or they could take on classroom assistants and buy more books and equipment with the money they save.

"It's up to them what they decide to do, but we can at least make sure they understand what the options are. We try to ensure the school is managing its assets properly and getting the best value for money. But the objective is always to improve the children's education."

Course member Brian Reeves, deputy head of Greenford High School in Ealing, west London, who teaches half-time and manages the school's finances with the rest of his time, believes the changing role of the bursar reflects much more radical changes in education as a whole. And he support's Angela's belief that she should be able to take on the head's role despite never having been a teacher.

"Whether someone without a teaching background could become a successful head would depend on how well they understand the core business," he says. "The head has to be able to keep discipline in the school and deal with children making a noise in the corridor. If you are leading a team of teachers they must have confidence in your ability.

"But the whole business of education is changing rapidly, and it's going to change even faster in the next five to 10 years. The way schools are built, financed and resourced is all up for change, and the management structure is changing too.

"Teachers may feel threatened. But there really is no reason why a non-teacher shouldn't run a school."

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