More to the job than money

14th February 2003 at 00:00
Bursars used to look after the cash. But the role is expanding all the time, reports Phil Revell

Workload is this year's buzzword. The Government's answer to the problem is for more work to be done by non-teachers. In the classroom, this is controversial, but schools have employed office staff in a variety of roles for years. Take bursars. Most secondary schools have them, but what do they do?

In some schools the job involves nothing more complex than collecting the money for school trips and running the tuck shop. In others, it's a demanding leadership role, with a seat on the senior management team. In such a case, the job might include responsibility for health and safety, lettings and bookings, site security and managing the non-teaching staff.

Wymondham college is a state boarding school, one of the most successful of the few remaining in Britain, and possibly the biggest state boarding school in Europe. It's in Norfolk and occupies the site of a former US air force hospital. Between 1942 and 1945 the base dealt with casualties from the USAF's bombing raids over Germany.

Wymondham's bursar is Clive Richardson, whose responsibilities include the site's many buildings - which range from a few Second World War Nissen huts to a new arts block - and finances and fees (the 500 boarders pay around pound;6,000 a year). "Then there are the non-teaching staff, the out-of-term bookings of the site, the general upkeep of the site - it's a long list," he says.

Mr Richardson takes the view that bursars should be like icebergs - largely invisible. "The school is about excellent teaching," he says. "And I'm not involved with that at all. But we all take pride in the school's results."

Most state schools will have nothing like the dormitories and additional facilities that Mr Richardson has to look after, but their bursars still have important roles to play. Until recently there was little in the way of training. Some schools paid for their bursars to take entry-level accountancy qualifications, but many relied on experience rather than qualifications. That has changed with the new bursars development programme that is being run by the National College for School Leadership. It's a fully funded programme offering online learning, private study, self-evaluation and a seven-day residential module.

Ann Christie, finance and facilities manager at Longsands college in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, found it "really useful, a tremendous boost". She has been at the college less than three years and had just been appointed to her new role when the NCSL's training programme became available. "I would not have had the confidence or the knowledge to do the job before starting the programme, let alone apply for it," she says.

Her former principal Dr Rob Gwynne, who left Longsands last term, says Ms Christie had been "growing into the new job while doing the programme. One has fed into the other to the school's huge benefit. She has blossomed as a consequence and has developed the practical skills she needs for her job".

State school bursars have some way to go before they catch up with their independent school counterparts, who often report directly to the governors and may have a role in appointing the headteacher.

Wrekin college is an 11-18 independent school in Shropshire, with more than 400 pupils, including 120 boarders. Its bursar is Colin McCulloch, who worked as an administrative officer for a law school before joining the college. Like Ms Christie and Mr Richardson, he is responsible for finance and premises. In his case, that means 54 buildings, and a 100-acre site with a public road running through it.

"In the independent sector most bursars are still ex-service people," he says, though he adds that an increasing number come from business. "It's difficult to find someone fully qualified for all aspects of the job. The role is a cross between a financial manager and a chartered surveyor. One minute you could be unblocking gutters, the next you could be shaking hands with the mayor." In addition, many independent schools are registered charities, a complication state school bursars do not have to face.

The role of the bursar in all types of school is growing, as more heads realise the futility of trying to do it all themselves. Primary schools are being encouraged to share a bursar and some of the Government's restructuring money for non-teaching staff is targeted at bursarial support.

So it's probable that bursars will assume a higher profile in most schools.

"It won't happen overnight," says Ms Christie. "But give me two or three years' experience and, yes, I think I would be interested in taking on more responsibility."

The National College for School Leadership course leads to the certificate for school business management. For more information contact NCSL, tel: 0870 001 1155; email;

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