Bursars started out as support staff, but they are fast becoming vital members of senior management teams. Gerald Haigh reports.
Schools are businesses - or that at least is what some heads and governors are keen to tell us. You can see what they mean: now that most of the money allocated for education is delegated to them, school budgets can run into millions.
As as a result, schools have been on a steep learning curve in financial management since the advent of local management of schools 13 years ago. At first, senior teachers increasingly took on more of the financial responsibilities and deputies started exchanging the curriculum for finance.
Increasingly, however - and particularly in the last five years - state schools are employing bursars (who can also be called finance officers, managers or business managers). Qualified in areas other than teaching, they take on some or all of the burden of finance and other supportive areas of school life.
That seems straightforward enough: teachers teach; heads lead; bursars do the books. In reality, however, it is a long way from being as simple as that.
Research by Fergus O'Sullivan and Elizabeth Wood of the International Educational Leadership Centre at the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside reveals that there is great diversity, not only in who bursars are and where they come from, but in how they are employed in schools. In papers delivered to the American Education Research Association annual meeting in Seattle earlier this year, the two academics were able to show - based on research from a sample of more than 1,100 bursars - that there are nine responsibility areas.
These are administration, finance, human resources, facilities and property, information management, support services, ICT, marketing, teaching and learning. Of these, the main ones are finance, human resources and facilities.
What is perhaps more important is the level of responsibilty given to bursars - their position in the hierarchy.
The Commons Education and Employment Committee's 1998 report on the work of headteachers said that bursars were a "seriously under-utilised resource". Arguably, that is borne out by Mr O'Sullivan and Mrs Wood's finding that one-third of bursars are not members of any school management group. At the other end of the scale, however, a third are full members of the senior management team and most of the rest have some contact with the such teams or other management groups.
The upgrading of the bursar to senior management - as the person who provides high-quality resources to support learning - is clearly going to be a strong feature of the running of schools in the next few years. Already there are some striking examples. John Hillier, who is bursar at Leigh City technology college in Dartford, Kent, is at the heart of the college's development plans.
"I'm part of the senior leadership team - involved in planning, because I'm excited about education," he says. "I might exclude myself from some discussions on curriculum, but that's my decision."
Mr Hillier buzzes with ideas: on video conferencing, entrepreneurial initiatives that get other people to pay for developments in school, or knocking down walls to help create flexible learning groups.
"The bursar is always in there making sure the budget fits the vision," he says.
Mr Hillier has an MBAin education management for school bursars from Lincolnshire and Humberside. A fellow graduate is Sue Whyler of Cooper school in Bromley, south-east London. So close to the heart of things is Mrs Whyler that she recently stood in briefly for the head while he was absent on sick leave. She seemed the natural choice because, she says, she is really at the heart of the whole operation - managing 10 office staff, as well as site staff and dealing with contractors, tenders, and catering. Hers is also one of the few schools that deals with its own personnel management.
"Today, for example," she says, "I'm looking at new contracts for special needs assistants. I have to write a reference for a staff member who wants a mortgage; I've got quotes to look at for a heating contract; I've got the auditors in and they've asked for lots of paperwork; I've done salary assessments for three new members of staff and written their contracts. I am the local authority in the school."
Mr Hillier and Mrs Whyler exemplify the way that bursarship is developing. As graduates of the Lincolnshire and Humberside MBA, they see themselves as part of a network, and are keen to share ideas.
"I think it's important that you pass the knowledge on," says Mr Hillier. "I'm trying to encourage that attitude. In industry - where I spent most of my working life - there was a tendency to hold on to your information, because it was sensitive. We don't have that in education - we're not competing in the same way. We should encourage and help each other."
In some schools, however, the position is less clear. Governors, for example, are often unsure about their relationship with the bursar and can be reluctant to see such a position warranting a salary equivalent to that of the deputy head.
Primary schools have also found it difficult to raise the money to pay a good bursar and, in many cases, the work has been divided between a secretary and the head. This problem should be eased, however, by the DfEE's announcement in March of an extra pound;80 million a year for small schools, which will help encourage rural primaries and secondaries to share "specialist teachers, shared bursars and support staff".
PAY? UP TO POUNDS 55,000
* Half of all schools have a bursar (or equivalent). Of the remaining half, most are primaries.
* Analysis of previous posts shows that bursars come from more than 100 professional backgrounds. Most were working at management and administration levels.
* More than half were working in education before becoming bursars.
* There are three times as many female bursars as male.
* Half of all bursars have been in their jobs for less than five years and most of the remaining 50 per cent, for less than 10 years.
* Thirty-five per cent of bursars classify themselves as "administration managers", outside senior management teams.
* Thirty per cent say they are full members of the senior management team.
* Sixteen per cent classify themselves as "education resource managers" - at least equivalent to a deputy head.
* Salaries range from under pound;10,000 a year, to more than pound;55,000. "It's the biggest talking point when we get together," says one.
Research carried out by Fergus O'Sullivan and Elizabeth Wood. National Bursars Association, PO Box 12 Chard, Somerset.TA20 3YX. Tel: 01460 65628 or visit www.nba.org.uk