Being a school bursar isn't just about money - it's a serious management role

'You have to be a bit of a juggler'

If Linda Jackson spots a child who's been sent to the head's office at the primary school where she is bursar, she usually hears the first version of the misdemeanour from the over-anxious child.

"The pleasure I get every day is the contact with the children," says Jackson. "They do not view me as an authority figure and many a time I find myself hearing some confession and saying, 'So you said that to the teacher? Well why don't you try this instead next time?'"

Jackson's enthusiasm for her job at the 218-pupil Middleton Parish Church School, Rochdale is almost tangible. She never knows when she walks into the building what the day will bring. On top of managing the budget of £700,000 (with help from administrators) she is involved in the daily running of the school, management of its assets, marketing, health and safety and employer relations. She joins the senior management team of the school for the first time in September 2008.

However, she can also find herself counselling parents, being an agony aunt to teachers and sorting out children who have forgotten their school lunch.

"The bursar's job is to take on all those aspects of the work of the school that are not to do with teaching and learning," she says. "You have to be a bit of a juggler because there are so many balls to keep in the air. The more support I can give to the head the more they can devote to teaching and learning."

Her first job in a school was as a dinner lady to fit around her own children. She'd spent six years in banking after leaving school with five A-levels intending to be a painter and determined not to be a teacher.

The past few years has seen an evolution in the school bursar role, which itself has grown out of the school secretary job that many people think of as being the person in charge of collecting the dinner money. Now, to reflect the bursars' greater responsibilities since the advent of delegated budgets, many schools call their bursars "school business managers" (SBMs) and give them a place on the senior management team.

A qualification structure now exists for SBMs, with a certificate and a diploma leading to the UK's first degree in school business management at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), for the National College for School Leadership. Jackson was among the first cohort to gain a BA Hons this summer.

Jackie Byrne, 42, does the equivalent job at Stretford Grammar School. She has worked her way up through the ranks having started in a school as a receptionist, and is hoping to complete her degree in school business management in 2009.

After leaving school without A-levels, she still pinches herself occasionally when she finds herself dealing with ICT, personnel, setting three and five-year audits, site management and cleaning contracts and disciplinary matters.

"You have to work independently," she emphasizes. "Sometimes mine is a lonely place to be."

Being resourceful is a quality she believes is essential for anyone wanting a career as a SBM in an increasingly business-minded school sector. Recently she shaved £17,000 off the school cleaning bill by outsourcing the contract and almost £10,000 on catering by bringing it in house.

Joy Coulbeck, the senior lecturer at MMU who launched the school business management degree, is convinced school business management is a growth area because schools increasingly see themselves as businesses. She sees a time soon where schools will have dual headships – one educational and one business.

Among the qualities vital for the job, Coulbeck lists versatility, ability to manage, leadership and flexibility, plus possibly a sense of humour. "The role is pivotal," she says. "The best school business managers allow head teachers to be the best heads they can without being diverted by administration."

The low-down

Experience in accounting, banking, human resources or finance is useful. Try an administrative post in a school to get a feel for it.

Qualifications in school business management are increasingly required in job advertisements. A graded set of qualifications – certificate and diploma – is offered through the National College of School Leadership. A degree and more recently a Masters are offered only at Manchester Metropolitan University. To get on a course you need to have a job in a school business environment. See www.ioe.mmu.ac.uk.

Look at the National college for School Leadership's website ( www.ncsl.org.uk) – for information about jobs and training programmes.

Salaries begin at £16,000 to £25,000 depending on the size of the school. Experienced SBMs are paid usually paid £30,000 to £50,000.

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