Derek Ferguson

3rd June 2011 at 01:00
The role of the school business manager is coming under the spotlight, with a growing impetus to devolve power to heads. The man who holds the position at Holy Rood High in Edinburgh explains why he and his colleagues have such a vital part to play.

How long have you been business manager of Holy Rood High in Edinburgh?

Since November, 2002 - nearly nine years.

What did you do before?

I spent 15 years in manufacturing. I started as an apprentice engineer in a woollen mill in the Borders before university. Once I graduated, I worked in the west of Scotland for Babcock Engineering and then United Wire in Edinburgh, then became managing director of a medium-sized engineering firm.

Did that prepare you for work in a school?

My previous jobs gave me valuable management experience. Having been in an apprenticeship and worked from the bottom up, I like to think I can talk to people. I had to learn to manage change and work in an improvement agenda.

What do you do that a headteacher or depute head would have done in the past?

I have a diverse range of responsibilities. As well as arranging cover for absent teachers, I'm also the ICT co-ordinator and the SQA co-ordinator. I deal with facilities management and financial planning and management. I'm involved in HR for support staff and I'm the health and safety officer for the school. Previously, all these areas came under the other senior leaders.

As chair of the Edinburgh Secondary Schools business managers' executive, what issues do you find cropping up in meetings?

The idea behind the group is to have a forum for liaising with senior council officials. In property, HR, health and safety and finance, we have worked closely with the council to set up working groups to provide our input to the council directly.

If more power is devolved to heads, and local authorities lose control over education, would that boost business managers' role?

There is no suggestion in my mind that local authorities will come to lose control over education by continuing the devolved school management process.

Could you manage a cluster of schools, as suggested in the Cameron report?

It's possible, but only if current remits were changed. There are some benefits to the model proposed in the Cameron report, but also significant challenges. A cluster model would have to be managed very carefully and would only be possible after consultation with parents, other members of the school and people at headquarters.

Would you want to?

The proposal has only just been made and I have not given it a great deal of thought. We haven't had a chance to discuss it as a group of business managers.

Do you think a head should always be teacher-trained, or could a business manager lead a school just as effectively?

Given that we are undergoing the largest change in Scottish education for a generation, I suggest as a business manager and a parent that anyone leading a school needs to have significant knowledge of and experience in learning and teaching.

The McCrone report 10 years ago stressed the value of bursars and business managers to the education system. What would you say to the McCormac review?

McCrone was right to emphasise the value of bursars and business managers. McCormac should be an open review and involve as much consultation as possible. Bursars and business managers play a vital role and taking either or both away would have to be considered very carefully.

What is the difference between a bursar and a business manager?

In Edinburgh, all high schools have a business manager and a bursar. A business manager is a member of the senior management team; a bursar can cover finance, HR, timetabling, SEEMIS (school management information system), SQA admin and income generation, although it varies across the city. Plans to change the model in Edinburgh are under discussion.

What qualities should a good business manager have?

Good communication and a willingness to learn. A lot of my skills were transferable, but working in a school was different from an engineering factory. You need flexibility, because we do all sorts of additional tasks. You need operational experience and, because you are dealing with people all the time, you need a sense of humour. It helps if you like kids.

Do you have any input to lessons on business or enterprise education?

I have, in the past, taken part in business awareness seminars where we have a year group spending a day working on problem solving in business projects. I've also been on outdoor education trips - the best one was to the First World War trenches in Belgium and France. I'm also a qualified rugby referee and am leading the school's bid to become a Scottish Rugby school of rugby.

What are the biggest financial strains facing you day to day?

The continuing and increasing budget pressures, particularly relating to staffing.

How would you like to see the role develop?

I'd like to see an improved career pathway as there is no progression route at present.

Derek Ferguson is taking part in a panel discussion at the first national conference on School Business Managers in Scotland: `Efficiency, Effectiveness and Excellence', Wednesday, 8 June, Best Western Capital Hotel, Edinburgh. Contact MacKay Hannah: mackayhannah.comhome

Personal profile

Born: Jedburgh, 1966

Education: Jedburgh Grammar; Napier University, engineering with management

First job: Babcock Engineering, Renfrewshire

Career: 15 years in manufacturing; now business manager, Holy Rood High, Edinburgh.

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