Should we be encouraging school business managers and bursars to progress into headship? Ruth Bradbury, who speaks on financial management at schools, voices her thoughts on the subject, as do three School Financial Management readers

Ruth Bradbury, school business manager

I have written many times on this topic, and I know that it is one on which people have strong views, and which excites debate on both sides. My own view is that there are a number of skills that the leader of a school needs to have. These include:

  • a commitment to maximising the life-chances of young people

  • a vision for their school as first and foremost a centre of learning

  • an understanding of the link between vision and action – of the practical steps required to achieve long-term objectives

  • an awareness of the national and local education context

  • an understanding of how human, physical and financial resources can be used in the most effective way to achieve that vision and maximise those life-chances

  • a leadership team whose skills complement one another and who can work together to lead the school towards the vision

  • the personal skills to inspire, lead and develop the whole school staff: communication, enthusiasm, energy, clarity, analytical skills.

We need to acknowledge that there are a relatively small number of people who combine all of these skills, and – equally – that there is no single professional background that will guarantee it. Not every teacher would make a good headteacher, and nor would every business manager. However, there will be some people in both groups who do have the necessary skills and experience.

Conversely, what the leader of school doesn’t necessarily need to have, in my view, is a) a career’s worth of classroom experience, or b) the knowledge and skills to perform and manage every single role in the school. Both of these expectations are still common currency, and are a legacy of the ‘hero headteacher’ model perpetuated for so many years. Schools are increasingly complex organisations with a range of responsibilities and a far broader workforce than in the past.

ncreasingly, there is an acknowledgement, if only tentative at present, that there are some areas of school life which are performed more effectively by people from other professional backgrounds. If those people have leadership potential, and if they meet the criteria outlined above, then is there actually any real reason to prevent their progress?

One further point: many of the individuals who contribute to this debate, whichever view they hold, tend to come from a starting point which assumes that there is an opposition between ‘education’ on the one hand and ‘business management’ on the other. There is an assumption that the two are mutually exclusive, and that a leader is either ‘for’ business and finance, or ‘for’ education. In the minds of some teachers, then, there is an inference that the debate is one which focuses on profits versus people; morality versus hard-nosed capitalism; heart versus head. I believe, however, that this opposition is a false and ultimately counter-productive one.

As I have said and written countless times, I am in no doubt that one of the key elements of good leadership is – has to be – the ability to allocate resources (human, physical and financial) to where they will do the most good for the organisation and its beneficiaries – in other words, it’s not about a focus on resources OR education, then, but a focus on resources FOR education. This role, it seems to me, could be performed by somebody with expertise and a strong professional track record in either business management or education, as long as they had a broad understanding, a willingness to learn, a degree of humility and the support of a strong team of colleagues to assist in those areas where they have less experience.

I have no doubt that I have a vocation. That vocation isn’t about producing fantastic spreadsheets or saving a few pounds on electricity. It certainly isn’t about toilet rolls and broken windows. I want to manage a learning institution and make a difference to the lives of young people and others in the community. I have no doubt that I could have a pretty good go at this; I do have doubts, however, as to whether existing culture and attitudes will change enough to afford me the opportunity to try.

SBMs and bursars should go for it!

Wendy Farrier, school business manager, Laleham Gap School, Margate, Kent

I think we should be encouraging business managers/bursars to progress into headship. Schools are increasingly becoming business entities and as such the focus of headship is moving towards more general resource management. Headteachers surround themselves with experienced staff on their senior leadership team, many of whom provide skills which they may lack themselves. I see no reason why school leadership cannot allow experienced, qualified and talented leader with vision, direction, and well developed communication and staff management skills to oversee a team in which other members have the teaching and learning skills and experience that he or she may lack. So long as the senior leadership team as a whole encompasses all the necessary experience and expertise, does it really matter which direction the overall leader has arrived from?

We need to encourage and harness the enthusiasm of our school business managers who are interested in headship and give them equal opportunity to progress. After all, if someone who is not trained in and has not practised financial and resource management – and is inexperienced in strategic leadership – is able to become a headteacher responsible for millions of pounds and hundreds of staff, then why can someone who is inexperienced in teaching and learning but has all these other attributes not do so?

I believe that a large barrier to this will be the teaching profession, who are likely to find it exceptionally difficult to accept a school leader who is not a teacher. It will also be difficult for parents and the community as a whole.

In order to address this, the first thing that needs to change is the title – headteacher needs to become head of school or something similar so that there is not an expectation of a teaching qualification. The next step needs to be promoting opportunities for more SBMs/bursars to become appropriately qualified for headship. The move towards this is happening but we still have a long way to go before we are at the point of SBMs and bursars being appointed to headships.

If we are committed to the desire to improve school leadership, then why should a large constituency of highly motivated and competent staff be excluded from this role? I say ‘Go for it my SBM/bursar colleagues’ and maybe one day we shall see the first head of school appointed from a background other than teaching.

More teachers should be encouraged to become heads

Dr Alison Taysum is a lecturer in the field of educational leadership at the School of Education, University of Leicester

When I was invited to contribute to the debate ‘School business managers as heads’ at the SFM conference, I was both pleased and perplexed.

I was pleased because I lead the the Post Graduate Certificate in Education Improvement through Enquiry (ItE) (bursars) at the School of Education, University of Leicester. This course is part of the Senior Bursar Development Programme (SBDP). Karen Hughes is programme leader for the National Bursars’ Association’s elements of the course. The course we have developed enables senior bursars to construct evidence based-practice through a process called action research. Their research focuses on the wider curriculum with a sharp focus on areas such as student voice, healthy eating, and developing citizenship within their educational communities of practice.

In my work with senior bursars, I have come to further understand the complexity of their roles, and the important and distinctive part they play in working to raise standards in their educational institutions. Senior bursars who have completed the course have produced a report-portfolio that demonstrates how their action research has made a difference in their schools. Their evidence-based practice reveals that senior bursars make an important contribution towards realising the Every Child Matters Policy Agenda and the European Commission’s Education and Training 2010 programme in their institutions.

On the other hand, I was perplexed because the Education Act 2002 points to headteachers requiring teaching qualifications, and it strikes me that in addition to this they need to be outstanding teachers, allowing them to have a deeper understanding of the challenges teachers face when engaging with the ‘moral art and science’ of teaching in their classrooms.

However, I find the argument that there is a shortage of headteachers troubling. I suggest that rather than look outside the teaching profession for headteachers, we look within. Why, for example, are there not more black headteachers, women headteachers, and headteachers from ethnic minority groups? What structures currently prevent teachers who are middle leaders from coming forward to lead their educational institutions to give our children and adults the education they deserve? 

From my work with outstanding senior bursars who are senior leaders I see that they have made a distinctive and vital contribution to their educational institutions. This needs to be recognised. In my view senior bursars and headteachers need to work together along with practitioners from health, social services, psychological services, the police, youth justice services, governors, children, parents, and stakeholders from all parts of society. In my view this kind of working together has the potential to build just communities, with brighter futures.

Is teaching the best qualification for running a large and complex organisation?

Justine Berkeley, business manager, the Harwich School

Should school business managers be headteachers? I am not sure if this is really the question that we need to consider, or if the real issue for debate is whether teachers are equipped with all the necessary skills to become leaders and managers of a complex organisation such a school.

When I was asked to consider this issue I decided to spend some time contemplating what makes a good leader. A successful leader is visionary, inspirational, a strategic thinker with excellent communication skills. They need to be persuasive, decisive, ethical and focused. When considering the list of qualities and skills required, experience of the teaching profession did not naturally spring to mind.

If we consider my own background, I am a chartered accountant and spent 15 years in industry and commerce before moving into the world of the public sector where I managed a business that provided financial management support services to schools. I recently made a career move to become Business Manager at the Harwich School and must confess that initially I was concerned about my lack of knowledge of the education profession. What did I know about delivering the curriculum or how to deal with behaviour issues? So for the first few Senior Management Team meetings I attended, I contributed very little, nervous of what value I could bring. However, I soon learned that the experience and the skills I had gained in other organisations could be applied to the business of education and that actually my background and knowledge did provide another dimension when discussing school improvement.

We also need to consider the structure of school senior management teams. Successful private organisations have teams of directors with specialisms in finance, human resources, ICT and sales and marketing. Most school senior management teams are comprised solely of teachers. Some schools do not even have a business manager. Does this provide a diverse enough mix of skills?

I am in the fortunate position that the headteacher of the school I work in is an inspirational leader with all the desired qualities of a successful manager but we need to consider whether they have gained these essential attributes from their career in the teaching profession or if they were inherent. Did they need to have direct experience of the teaching profession to perform their role of strategic leader successfully or could they rely on advice and guidance from a team of specialists around them? Do the skills of a suitably qualified business manager lend themselves more readily to leading a multifaceted organisation such as a school? Maybe the time has come to move away from tradition and pilot some different models of school leadership. Only then may we have the answers to these questions and know that all schools are structured to deliver the highest quality of education.

Poll shows opinion is divided on SBMs as heads

An online poll carried out exclusively for School Financial Management has suggested that the wider profession may not yet be ready to accept the first business managers as heads. The poll, which took place on the parent website of SFM showed that 44% of respondents were in favour and 56% against the idea of business managers as heads. They were responding to the question: ‘Should business managers and bursars be able to progress into headship?’ The poll attracted one of the largest ever votes on the website, confirming it as a topic of considerable interest to those in schools.

[Figures correct at time of writing]