Fingers on the financial pulse

26th January 2001 at 00:00
Paying for a bursar to administer the school liberates so many areas for senior staff, writes Eleanor Caldwell.

From buying pencils to the appointment of staff, the running of school accounts under devolved management is an increasingly time-consuming task for senior staff. Teachers often need to handle money for school visits or residential trips.

But after last year's McCrone report on teachers' pay and conditions and this year's pay offer from the Scottish Executive, the extra workload has finally been recognised. Property management, supply cover, financial administration of out-of-school visits, stock taking and invoice reconciliation were all regarded by McCrone as important functions of a school bursar's job. What's more, he suggested, bursars should be "of equivalent standing to other senior teaching staff in school and paid accordingly". Now the Executive is heeding his words and has promised 3,500 extra support staff.

While new bursars have been upgraded, parity with senior staff is still under consideration. But Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, the main teachers' union, welcomes the proposals to put bursars in every school in Scotland. He says: "It's important to bring in professional staff who can free up teachers and headteachers to concentrate on teaching and learning in the school."

Edinburgh City Council has already appointed a bursar in each of its 23 secondary schools. At Leith Academy, Moira Stewart, the former admin assistant-turned bursar, monitors the school's annual budget of pound;2.5 million as well as an additional budget for the school's community work, including adult classes and conference and leisure facilities. She is, says Leith's headteacher, Sandy McAulay, "an excellent financial technician".

Mrs Stewart had the benefit of training and previous experience of accounts, and, as admin assistant for 14 years, she was always involved with the financial work of the school. She has been able to delegate responsibility for time-consuming work such as SQA exam administration to the school's senior clerical assistant.

"However, I still do the mail every morning, because I have a good handle on all that's going on and it gives me a complete overview of all aspects of the finances," she points out.

With 85 per cent of the school's budget dedicated to staffing, Mr McAulay says the bursar plays a key role in preparation and consideration of future staffing.

"I get all the information from Moira prior to discussion of staffing with senior management," he explains. Having the latest figures detailing cost implications of prospective appointments saves him valuable time for other managerial work.

With the remaining 15 per cent of the school budget, Mrs Stewart is responsible for accounts concerning property management, equipment repai, administration and energy costs. She also monitors rolling investment programmes such as the information and communications technology, accounting for a budget of more than pound;40,000, and Excellence Fund monies. Leith Academy is a community school, so there are rooms to be let and different salary arrangements.

Bursars in Edinburgh are given access to the general ledger in the city's finance section for practical reasons, though information from this is normally accessed by the school's appointed finance assistant, with whom the bursar meets termly.

"If I have any queries," says Mrs Stewart, "I know I can phone and speak to staff in whichever department of the finance section I need."

For class teachers, Mrs Stewart has an increasingly high profile and more practical role to play. For example, buying calculators in maths, dictionaries in modern languages and eggs in home economics - which require relatively low-level, but time-consuming accounting - she offers them a systematised approach. All departments have been issued with individual pay-in books to avoid teachers presenting her with monies in an ad hoc manner. At any time, teachers can have up-to-date accounts for the relevant expenses for everything from stationery to resource materials.

The drama department has benefited from having a print-out of all planned theatre visits and payments made, providing a more effortless system of collecting and checking ticket money over a full term. Keeping up to date with payments by instalment for residential trips is also made easier through detailed accounts and print-outs.

At the close of the financial year, Sandy McAulay finds there are benefits in having a bursar. Leith Academy's accounts reveal a balance which has a potential carry-forward figure. Having chased up unpaid invoices and balanced the books, Mrs Stewart can present him with details of the carry-forward sum he can look forward to spending and indicate how much he must spend, if necessary, before the end of the financial year.

With a headteacher who is a former teacher of business studies and a bursar who has experience of accounts, Leith Academy is fortunate to have a confident financial team. For headteachers who are less happy with the budgetary responsibilites of devolved school management, Mr McAulay believes more training is needed.

Edinburgh City Council is planning to provide training for bursars, which Moira Stewart believes will be essential for admin assistants who have now converted to the role.

She has assisted with in-service training for secretarial staff in some of the city's primary schools. "They are dealing daily with school fund money, coming from lots of different sources, as well as all the day-to-day administration of the school. If my system is of use, I'm pleased to share it with them," she says.

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