Who should hold the purse strings?

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
BURSAR TO SCHOOL BUSINESS MANAGER. By Fergus O'Sullivan, Angela Thody and Elizabeth Wood. Prentice Hall, pound;16.99. BALANCING THE BOOKS. By Kevin McAleese. Heinemann, pound;15.99

There is a serious financial and business management job to be done in state schools. Perhaps it has always been there, but it really forced its attention on heads and governers when they started to be given delegated budgets.

The watchword among heads then was, "I didn't come into teaching to be an accountant," and so they hastened to appoint bursars, finance officers, admin managers (various names have been used) who would count the money and leave educators free to deal with the pressures of the national curriculum.

With luck (whew!) the bursar would also take on the job of running the caretaker and cleaners, though sometimes they would not find that out until they started work.

The realisation that counting the money, looking after the building and running the curriculum might be closely related took some time to arrive. A symptom of this lack of analysis was that the bursar was sometimes introduced, with little thought and preparation, over the head of a long-serving senior secretary.

Lack of clarity about responsibility boundaries was common - at one end of the spectrum between bursar and admin staff, and at the other between bursar and the school management team. The position was exacerbated by the fact that schools were often trying to buy in business management skills much too cheaply.

As O'Sullivan et al explain in their closely researched examination of the bursar's role, the basic issue is whether or not bursars should be part of the strategic management of the school. Schools of today and tomorrow, they point out, demand that there be effective business managers on the top corridor.

They suggest that there are four types. First, the "Administration Manager," outside the senior management team,"servicing the needs of teaching and management staff on request." Type two is the "Support Services Manager", advising the senior management team and "usually, but not invariably, the leader of the support staff." Type three is the "School Business Manager", a full member of the SMT, "with some human resource management responsibilities for teaching staff and managing outsourced contracts."

Type four is the fully fledged "Education Resource Manager", equivalent or perhaps higher than a deputy head, "with responsibility for all human resorce management as well as all functions which affect the provision of a high-quality learning environment."

The authors relate this typology to different levels of autonomy that a school might aspire to. Schools will become increasingly autonomous, they say, and therefore,"the school business manager needs to have the highest level of expertise in strategic leadership".

The problem is, of course, that teachers are slow to accept "non-teachers" (this much-used, gratuitously negative term is significant, and is rightly criticised here) at management level. One bursar the authors interviewed says, "I'm given so much responsibility, but I don't sit on the SMT. The school does value me, but there is a view that non-academics should not come onto the SMT. It's difficult to accept."

Another, by contrast, says, "I was appointed instead of one of the four deputies and at the same level. I am now paid more than the deputy head. My position is second toalongside the head because of the different responsibilities.....I have had to stop the head doing things".

The clear message is that in future, just as primary teachers are having to accept classroom assistants as para-professionals, so secondary heads and governors will need to stop thinking of finance and admin as something to be dumped on to "non-teachers". The book abounds with examples of how bursars have brought new, creative thinking to school leadership. What's needed is willingness to think new thoughts about roles within the school and this book is an excellent starting point.

By contrast, Balancing the Books is a very usable nuts-and-bolts guide to preparing and running the school budget. Kevin McAleese is a well-known writer and consultant on these matters, and his advice is sound and easy to follow, set out chronologically as it is.

There is a particularly strong and much-needed chapter on "self-generated income" - needed because many schools take for granted that their income is fixed, whereas others manage to raise significant sums from fund-raising, trading, and lettings. McAleese has some startling figures, in fact, showing that in secondary schools for 11 to 16s, self-generated income varies between zero and pound;168,773, with an average figure of pound;71,913.

Clearly, some schools go for income generation in a big way, tackling all the pitfalls of charitable status, VAT and the like - often, presumably, with sound professional help.

Gerald Haigh

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