Education Quandary

I would like to be a head teacher, but I'm terrified of the financial side of the job - I have no aptitude for figures. Should I give up my ambition?

By Hilary Wilce
Thursday 11 November 2004 01:00

Hilary's advice

As a head, you will be required to do many things for which you may well have no aptitude. The job is hugely varied and demanding. It is like running a small or medium-sized company, but with no clear-cut product or service, only the complex business of shaping young minds. It involves management, counselling, policing, diplomacy, oratory and public relations, to name but a few of the key skills, and to anyone whose experience has been mainly in the classroom, all these could seem daunting.

And, as you rightly surmise, the money side of things is important. Ever since the local management of schools came in during the 1980s, heads have needed a good grasp of their school's budgets - and some who haven't have got into serious hot water.

But this financial involvement should be strategic rather than detailed. These days, many schools have bursars to do the day-to-day finances, or devolve duties to administrative staff, so it may not be nearly as big a part of the job as you seem to think, especially given that a huge part of any school's spending is on salaries, which is a stable and predictable element of the overall budget.

On top of that, your experience of climbing the ladder - to department head and then to deputy head - will give you some experience of handling budgets, and, at the end of the day, managing a school's finances is not so different from handling your own; if you can keep a handle on your own expenditure, you can do it on a grander scale.

Then there is training. As of this year, any new head has to hold, or be studying for, the National Professional Qualification for Headship, which includes a look at finance. And once you are in post, you may well be able buy in local education authority support if you still feel financially uncertain.

In addition, wise heads quickly learn the value of sharing budget problems with colleagues. Robin Attfield, assistant director at the National College of School Leadership, points to a primary school where the head thought he would have to take the painful decision to axe the person responsible for special education because of a shortage of funds. Instead, his teachers volunteered to take on bigger classes to keep this precious specialist support in the school.

Readers' advice

Before applying, you could sign up for a course in financial management at your local further education college. Look at the specifications of headships when they are advertised, and see if financial management experience/ competence is essential. If you need help when you're in post, you should be able to get in-service training.

However, don't forget that a key feature of leadership is delegation.
John Bateman, Worthing

I retired as a secondary school head almost 20 years ago. In my day, we could only sit and watch while the council wasted money on things that schools neither needed or wanted. As a head, running your own budget will be a privilege, and something you should embrace wholeheartedly.
Jack Lennie, Derby

No one should let fear stop them pursuing an ambition. The fact that you are far-seeing enough to know what will be expected of you as a head, and self-aware enough to know your own weaknesses, makes it very likely that you will make a good and wise leader when the time comes.
Gira Patel, London SW20

Next week's quandary

How much does education affect people's politics? If voters in the US had had the kind of citizenship education at school that our pupils get, would the outcome of the Presidential election have been any different?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 15 November, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser

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