Handling the muck and money

10th November 1995 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh reports on the way an administrative officer can really free teachers for the job they're good at.

Since the advent of local management of schools, many secondary schools have wrestled with whether or not to appoint a non-teaching administrative officer who would relieve the senior teaching staff of the muck and money side of running the school.

Just to make the point, here are three episodes culled from the life of a secondary deputy: * For an hour before school she worked on the SIMS finance module, preparing figures for the management meeting later in the week.

* At lunchtime she watched meals being served, because the kitchen staff would like another person on the servery at peak times.

* In the afternoon she spoke on the phone to the authority about the rights of a teacher who was requesting maternity leave.

This deputy is just one of many whose work in recent years has expanded to take in a whole range of responsibilities to do with finance, personnel and site management.

Ian Kershaw, head of Sidney Stringer Community College, a Coventry inner-city comprehensive, is one head who believes that for senior teachers to do this kind of work is neither cost-effective nor necessarily efficient. "I can't understand why you'd want to pay a senior teacher or a deputy head to spend 50 per cent of their time looking at finance. Deputy heads should be focussing on the teaching and learning - monitoring, demanding, expecting."

Pat Nesbitt, one of the school's two deputies, agreed. "Going down into the basement with a torch to look at the boilers is not my idea of how I should be spending my time. Our focus as deputies is on teaching and learning in the classroom, and we are all committed to that view."

Put like this, the case seems to make itself. All the same, in the early days of admin officers in state schools, numerous mistakes were made. Typically, a board of governors would panic at the prospect of their financial responsibility and assume that this was where they needed help. As a result, a school would appoint a finance officer only to find that there were lots of other non-teaching jobs to be done. This was how a hapless, newly-appointed, accountancy-skilled "bursar" might find himself being expected to tame a caretaker who had been running wild for years.

Another cause of misunderstanding, usually brought about by inability to pay a decent salary, was to appoint at too low a level in the hierarchy so that the admin officer was just senior enough to cause resentment among existing support staff, but too junior to fight their corner at management level.

Ian Kershaw has kept out of both traps. Not only is Peter Holmes, the school's admin officer, a full member of the senior management team along with the two deputy heads, but he has enough experience and expertise to cope with everything from reassuring a meeting of restless cleaners to preparing a set of tender documents for a major building project.

He came to the school nine years ago after a 32-year career in local government. Although his salary, which is based on local government professional grades, is less than that of many senior teachers, he regards himself as fortunate to be doing the job which he now has.

"I haven't a lot of paper qualifications, but I've picked up a wealth of knowledge without a great deal of formal training. I get enormous satisfaction from this job, and I think I'm well paid for what I do."

Significantly, Peter Holmes takes finance - the problem area for many teachers - in his stride. "If you're on top of the finance, it's all structured. It's in place and it should be working and we're spoonfed by SIMS anyway."

Managing people, on the other hand, he sees as much more challenging. "It's much less clear cut, and there are different issues from day to day."

Peter Holmes is direct line manager to 24 people, and meets their four section heads - the senior resources technician, the senior caretaker, the person charge of the office, and the senior information technology technician - formally once a week. He has no management oversight of teaching staff, but he looks after their personnel issues - salary enquiries, for example.

One reason why this part of the job is difficult is that many of the support staff, although responsible to the admin officer, also take operational instructions from teaching staff. Asked for an example of how these boundaries overlap, Pat Nesbitt and Peter Holmes both came up with the same account of how the resources technicians, overwhelmed by a sudden surge in demand from teachers for photocopying, came to him to ask for some sort of booking system to be introduced.

The real point of this story, though, is that because Peter Holmes is a member of the most senior policy-making group in the school, he was able to get their problem both aired and solved in quick time.

This direct line to the heart of the school will be recognised as a golden asset by those support staff members who have known the frustration of, for example, trying to engage the attention of an overworked deputy who does not clearly understand the problem anyway.

The result of having support staff so well led and represented, explained Pat Nesbitt, is that they are in tune with the school's philosophy. "So if a teacher wants to rearrange a room, or add display boards, it's seen as being for the benefit of children, and not just a teacher being fussy."

Talk to Peter Holmes and his senior teacher colleagues and you suddenly realise that the strength of the arrangement lies in a contrast of perceptions. To a teacher, while the classroom task is manageable and satisfying, the administrative side of life is usually irksome and worrying. Peter Holmes, however, not only finds satisfaction from being good at the administrative work, but is able to take great pride in being able to provide the right working conditions for pupils and teachers.

Ian Kershaw is not in doubt about Peter Holmes's importance. "If I had to choose between losing a deputy head or the admin officer, I would keep the admin officer."

The school recently appointed an administrative assistant both to deputise for Peter Holmes and to act as manager of the school office. There were 21 applications for this post, many from highly qualified administrators, and the young man appointed is a graduate who will be supported by the school as he gains professional management qualifications.

* Sidney Stringer staff provide consultancy for other schools on the role of the administrative officer in school management. Sidney Stringer Community Technology College, Cox Street, Coventry CV1 5NL

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