Education: The heads who mind their own business: More schools are hiring expert help to manage their budget problems, says Gerald Haigh

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HEADTEACHERS are looking for drastic action to reduce their administrative burdens, as an increasing share of budgeting is devolved to school level.

Many have reacted by asking their governors for more help in the office - more hours for the secretary, perhaps, or a modest upgrading. Some, however, are appointing non-teachers as bursars, or business managers.

Probably most of the governing bodies of large state secondary schools have discussed the possibility of making an appointment that is, of course, normal practice in the independent sector. But as yet only a few of the biggest schools have taken on senior administrators.

At Nicholas Chamberlaine, a 1,200-pupil 11-18 comprehensive in Warwickshire, the arrival last April of a school administrator had its roots in discussions earlier in the school year when Bryan Addison, the head, and his governors felt they were in danger of losing the battle to keep on top of the school's pounds 2.3m budget.

'We have been locally managed for four years. For the first three we did well, but as time went on I found that the details were becoming more and more remote from me,' says Mr Addison. 'For one thing we were relying too heavily on budget reports from the county council, which always ran behind.' After three years of surplus, the school found itself with an unexpected overspend.

The need for help was given urgency by the opening of a new sports hall and the consequent need to organise staff, bookings and fees for use by people in the local community.

'We decided to advertise for a professional administrator,' Mr Addison adds. 'Could we afford it? Frankly I didn't think we could afford not to have such a person. We clearly needed someone at senior level who could penetrate through the various levels of delegation and see that everything was properly done.'

Once the salary level of pounds 20,000 was settled, the governors placed advertisements. 'We had 250 applications. They fell into two main categories. There were local government people, including some who were already doing the kind of work we wanted, and there were officers who had recently retired from the forces.'

The job went to Mike Sharpe, a former squadron leader, who had spent 28 years in the Royal Air Force followed by a short civilian career in financial services. Mr Addison felt that 'although it was by no means an overriding concern, it was probably a good idea to break away from the perceptions of local government'.

Mr Sharpe is entirely relaxed about the change in his life. 'Basic business principles apply just the same. I was ready to go anywhere. I also applied for jobs managing doctors' practices.'

Already he has negotiated a new job description for the caretakers, which involves them in minor maintenance. They now have a workshop and a portable workbench; their job is more satisfying, their practical skills are used and valued, and the arrangement pays off in a reduced need for outside contract work.

Many of his ideas, such as the reorganisation of caretaking, could undoubtedly have been thought up by the teachers. But making them work takes time; as a result, in many schools they are discussed but never enacted, or they eat up valuable curriculum management hours. More than anything, Mr Sharpe's arrival has given the headteacher and his senior colleagues time to pay proper attention to the pupils and their lessons: 'It's taken a tremendous burden from my shoulders,' Mr Addison says.

Other schools report the same relief. At the Plymouth Eggbuckland Community College, which has had a bursar and a site manager for several years, Howard Green, the principal, sees the arrangement as 'releasing senior educationists to get back to education'. He adds: 'It's crucial these days that these jobs are not done by a deputy head.'

Mr Addison, however, points to one possible problem. 'I think the staff may regret it, because I'm now producing policy statements at a speed which even I think may be ridiculous]'