Bursars in the balance

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Curriculum and budgets demand different expertise, writes Phil Revell. Schools that appoint financial specialists find they save money overall

Who holds the purse strings in your school? Is it the head or a deputy? And is that what they signed up for when they entered teaching? At the National College for School Leadership, Tony Richardson thinks it's time for a change. "There are plenty of medium-to-large secondary schools where a deputy takes responsibility for finance and timetabling," he says. "That is not a good use of a deputy's time and it's a pretty amateurish way of dealing with a complex multi-million pound operation."

Mr Richardson is director of the college's bursar programme, which recently trained its 1,000th candidate. He is a strong advocate for distributed leadership and delegated management. Running a school, he argues, is now too complex a task for heads to do alone. And some jobs require specialist training and skills. Number one on the list that schools should delegate to non-teachers is looking after the money.

"Our research shows bursars tend to attract extra funding into schools well in excess of their salary," he says. "And nearly half of our graduates can cite solid examples of how they've improved effectiveness in their schools, including finding significant cost savings."

Margaret Jowett has just saved her school nearly pound;2000 a year, simply by switching off three telephone lines that weren't being used.

Mrs Jowett is the school manager at Moor Park high school in Preston. In February this year she graduated with the NCSL's entry-level bursars'

qualification, the Certificate In School Business Management. "It's a fabulous course. I feel really respected and my confidence has soared," she says.

Mrs Jowett is an integral member of her school's management team, with responsibility for a pound;2.7million budget. Her role covers finance, administration, and premises management.

The course she took combines online learning and training while attending the college's Nottingham headquarters. Would-be bursars research and write an in-school project as part of their assessment. The programme is designed to be completed within a year and is seen as the equivalent of an NVQ level 4.

The national college also offers a diploma: a higher-level course that offers 200 places a year and accepted its first students last November. It covers three main areas: strategic management, managing school improvement and change management.

The college doesn't have a monopoly on training for school administration.

Several universities offer foundation degrees and the National Bursars Association (NBA) offers a licentiate programme, a qualification below degree level, for experienced bursars.

"They should be an integral member of the senior management team before they apply for this," says Karen Hughes, the association's training and development manager. "The process recognises their experience and level of work."

Jenni Harrison Hill followed the NBA qualification. The business manager at Derbyshire's Kirk Hallam Technology College came from a background in retail management. At Kirk Hallam she is a member of the senior management team with responsibility for the premises, security, administration, support staff and health and safety.

She applied for the NCSL programme, but the courses were full. The NBA course involved project work in school supported by a mentor who was a successful bursar in another state school. The course took two years. "It made me look at issues I would never have looked at," she says.

While most of the bursars The TES spoke to were happy with the NCSL and NBA courses, there was a call for more training focused specifically on running the building, and on health and safety.

"I would have welcomed more of an insight into risk and health and safety, says Mrs Jowett. "These are big issues."

Jenni Harrison Hill had taken the Nebosh qualification (National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health) aimed at managers, supervisors and others with a health and safety responsibility. This certificate course is offered by many providers - including many FE colleges - and can be an intensive couple of weeks or a leisurely six months of evening classes. The syllabus includes risk assessment and coping with a variety of hazards. Jenni Harrison Hill welcomed the module on building works - like other premises managers, she finds contractors and builders can be the most difficult visitors.

Both Jenni Harrison Hill and Margaret Jowett see themselves as part of their school's management team, but whether they are typical bursars is a more difficult question. There's certainly a high demand for the NCSL training, but the state sector has a long way to go before it catches up with practice in independent schools.

In many boarding schools, bursars aren't just on the senior management team; they actually share power with the head. In many of these schools they report directly to the governing body, and there is a clear demarcation of responsibilities: the head is responsible for teaching and learning; the bursar is responsible for "managing the asset" - buildings, land and investment income.

Contrast that with Debbie Horshaw, a bursar in a big state primary school in Shropshire. Despite the title, Ms Horshaw says she has no real management responsibility at all. "I'm just a secretary really," she says.

"I'm not allowed to take any decisions - much as I'd like to."

Ms Horshaw is educated to A-level and would love the opportunity to extend her skills, but she doesn't think that she will get that chance if she stays in the same school.

At the NCSL, Tony Richardson thinks that this reluctance to delegate is a common problem that will require a shift in culture. "Since the early 1990s schools have steadily taken on more and more devolved responsibility, but there hasn't been a commensurate development of the management approach."

The answer, for small schools in particular, may be to share a bursar. "We envisage a future where schools cluster and group together - especially in the primary sector," he explains. "That may mean primary schools sharing the bursarial function. Those schools that have moved in that direction have seen huge benefits."

phil.revell@ukonline.co. uk

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