A head for figures can reap rich rewards

16th November 2007 at 00:00
If you don't want to spend your days bogged down in budgeting, perhaps it is time you got someone else to hold the purse strings. Adi Bloom reports.Rob Gilbey used to spend his days pricing toilets. "These aren't the things I came into teaching for," says the Nottinghamshire head. "Pricing toilets, grounds maintenance, water testing. Nobody prepares you for that side of the job. I felt someone must be better able than me to do them."

Eighteen months ago Mr Gilbey, of Robert Miles Junior School in Bingham, promoted his office manager, Elizabeth Overvoorde, to school business manager. She now has responsibility for financial and personnel management, school premises and health and safety.

"It hasn't lessened my workload," Mr Gilbey said. "I mean, as a head you'll never be free of things to do. But it's not about absolving yourself of responsibility. Now I'm able to concentrate on my job: the effect of teaching and learning in school. I don't have to worry about getting the boiler fixed."

Robert Miles is one of a growing number of primary schools choosing to devolve responsibility for the financial running of the school to a dedicated business manager. The National College for School Leadership already runs two courses, a certificate and a diploma, to train would-be managers in the intricacies of the school financial system. And this week Ed Balls, the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, announced funding for a pilot scheme that will pay half the cost of appointing business managers to a set of primaries (see The View From Here, right). The aim is for all primaries to have access to one, individually or shared between a cluster.

Trevor Summerson, who is responsible for developing the NCSL programme, says: "You wouldn't expect Richard Branson to know about the day-to-day aspects of Virgin's finances, would you? He'd be focusing on broader strategies.

"It should be exactly the same for headteachers. By devolving responsibility for the budget, they could save up to a third of their time and have more contact with pupils."

Increasingly, heads bemoan the organisational complexity and accounting demands of their job. Earlier this year, an NCSL conference highlighted a predicted shortage of heads, as existing deputies choose not to seek promotion: the difference in workload, they argue, is enormous, while the salary rise is not. This will be felt when heads currently in their 50s reach retirement age. So the aim of the new scheme would be to increase the appeal of headship, making it less like banking and more like teaching.

"Heads haven't worked their way up, teaching children, just to move into another discipline altogether," says Mr Summerson. "A head should be focused on leading learning, on representing the school."

Since the NCSL's certificate and diploma were launched in 2002, around 5,000 people have undertaken training. Approximately 90 per cent of secondaries now employ a business manager or a bursar.

Kerry Brimfield is business manager of Dyson Perrins High in Malvern, Worcestershire, having run her own fitness business for 14 years.

"Having run a business, I know what you have to do to make a school work financially," she said. "So now the head doesn't have to spend every day thinking, 'Have we got the money to deal with this?'"

Secondary business managers such as Mrs Brimfield, with experience in banking or business, can command a salary of between pound;50,000 and pound;60,000, a sum inconceivable to many small primaries. While many choose to federate, hiring one business manager between several schools, others train existing staff.

Mrs Overvoorde, who took this route, says: "Becoming a business manager was never on the horizon. I started as a school secretary and that kind of progression was unheard of. I did the training because it sounded relevant, but I was naive about the effect it would have. It's turned my role upside down."

Now, like many business managers, she is in charge of not only the school budget, but also maintaining the premises, dealing with health and safety requirements, acquiring resources, ensuring compliance with disability legislation and getting to grips with new government legislation. She has also expanded a personal interest in the environment into an eco-warrior scheme for pupils.

"There are no boundaries," she says. "If I want to do something, I can make it happen. I'm backed by a head who gives me so much rope, sometimes I wonder if he's giving me enough to hang myself."

But Mr Gilbey is similarly enthusiastic. "Originally, I saw the advantages in terms of financial management," he says. "But she's had an impact in more and more areas - and on the pupils, which is an unexpected bonus."

In fact, the opportunity to work with pupils is one of the attractions of the job, and one of the reasons - along with more family-friendly hours - that professionals are choosing to make the shift from business to education.

"In business, it's all about making profits," says Mrs Brimfield. "You say you're customer focused, but you don't know what customer focused is until you work in a school. Schools are about people doing their best for others, and that's a tangible thing."

But if school management offers a different type of customer relations, it also has its disadvantages. Unlike business, the person in charge of the finances will never run the operation: they are always answerable to the headteacher.

Mrs Brimfield acknowledges this. But, she insists, she is a member of the senior management team, with the ability to influence the running of the school. "My role is a leadership role, without a shadow of a doubt," she says.

"I like to think of myself as a solution-finder. Inevitably, the head won't be confident in areas outside his expertise. So it's like putting a jigsaw together. If there's a problem, I come up with alternatives. The head can say to me, 'This is happening. What are our options?'"

Mr Summerson agrees. In fact, he claims this sharing of expertise is exactly the point. "Not everyone has the gift to educate the next generation," he says. "But people can support the teaching workforce, the head, and improve the overall effectiveness of the school."

What a school business manager can do for you

- Manage the school's budget, so the head can immediately find out if a new initiative is affordable.

- Take responsibility for maintaining school premises, ensure buildings meet health and safety standards and are accessible for disabled pupils, plan upgrades and repairs.

- Deal with bureaucracy, whether hiring new staff, managing existing staff or determining how new initiatives will affect the school.

- Act as a sounding board for the head, providing an alternative perspective.

- Manage long-term development projects, for example the shift to an extended school.

- Come in during the holidays, so the head does not always have to.

- Interact with pupils, running schemes that reflect their interests.

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