School bursars and business managers can enrich both their schools and their own professional roles by getting involved in the wider life of their schools, says Ruth Bradbury
One of the great things about working in a school, as opposed to other types of organisation, is the range of opportunities that there are to get involved in things that aren’t directly connected to your core role. While business management is, of course, a full-time job in its own right (arguably, in many cases, much more than a full-time job), there are many reasons why devoting some time to other aspects of school life can be beneficial.
First of all, I would suggest that experience in other areas can actually help you do your main job more effectively: once you understand some of the issues and challenges faced by school staff and students, you can bring that understanding to enrich your own work. Secondly, involvement in core business can help build up your role and status within the school: if you step out of your office and show that you have other skills and abilities more directly related to the curriculum or the welfare of young people, then you may find that you are accepted and listened to more readily by colleagues from the teaching side of the organisation.
Furthermore, those business managers who may have career progression aspirations within schools will find that experience in these areas will put them in a better position when considering their next move. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, involvement in the day-to-day life of the school can actually make your role more fulfilling and satisfying. To my mind, there is nothing better than hands-on experience to help you appreciate the direct impact you can have on the school and on the young people it serves.
In this article, then, I shall look at some of the ways in which business managers can expand and develop their roles in this way to benefit themselves and their schools.
Learning and teaching
Learning and teaching is, of course, the primary purpose of a school, and should be at the heart of everything that we do and the decisions that we make. Experience in this area – whether it is practical involvement in lessons or more detached strategic or analytical work – can provide valuable insight and understanding. There are many examples of ways in which you could get involved in learning and teaching.
There is currently a wealth of data available to schools to enable them to predict, evaluate and monitor both their overall performance and the performance of individual students. Data on ability (eg CAT scores), on prior performance (KS1/2/3 results) and relating to contextual factors can be used to produce target attainment rates for each student and thus overall headline targets for the whole school. While the intelligent interpretation of the data is, of course, very much a learning issue, the actual analysis and manipulation does not need to be done by teaching staff – and, arguably, it should not be part of their remit. Some schools may already have realised this and appointed a data manager. If yours hasn’t, however, it is likely that the data analysis is still done by a member of the senior leadership team (SLT) or another member of teaching staff.
If you are confident in your spreadsheet skills, it may well be worth offering your services for analysis and interpretation: in essence, it is not so far removed from the kind of work that school business managers carry out regularly when looking at the financial position. It involves the comparison of ‘budget’ (ie target) grades with ‘actual’ performance and the devising of remedial strategies where required. Spreadsheet skills are very useful here: for example, logical formulae and conditional formatting can be used in a table of mock GCSE results to calculate the number of A*-C grades for each student and globally, and the number/percentage with 5+ A*-C including maths and English. If statistically-predicted target grades are also included in the spreadsheet, then colour-coded charts can be produced showing those students and/or subjects which are underperforming. Work such as this can help subject or year leaders and the SLT to identify a group of students for additional support, or identify subject areas which could benefit from additional teaching and learning interventions. The key to successful use of data lies as much in its presentation and user-friendliness as in its accuracy or complexity, and this will also give you the opportunity to demonstrate your presentation and communication skills, especially when dealing with staff who are uncomfortable with statistics.
While data analysis can identify those areas where actual performance falls short of statistical predictions, strategies used for tackling such underperformance will sit squarely in the realm of the living, breathing human being rather than the impersonal spreadsheet. Most schools will use ongoing assessment – whether by spreadsheet or other means – to identify students who are at risk of not reaching their full potential in tests or examinations. Many will then assign those students to a mentor who they may see every few weeks and who will work with them to keep them focused and identify – and try to help them to overcome – any barriers to learning that they may face. While this role can be, and often is, performed by teaching staff, it can be very time-consuming and most schools are grateful for additional volunteers. In fact, many already work with their local education business partnership and employers to implement mentoring schemes involving employees of local companies. If this is the case, then ask if you can become involved and join in any training that may be available. If not, then offer yourself in an informal capacity anyway: you may need some support initially, but detailed subject knowledge is not normally required, and will be more than compensated for by common sense and building a good relationship with the young people.
Contributions to lessons
As a business manager, it is quite possible to work in a school for a number of years and never spend any length of time in a classroom, or at least not while lessons are taking place. Although it is perfectly possible to perform your role without any direct experience of the learning or teaching process, there is nevertheless a strong argument to suggest that your understanding, knowledge and empathy can be significantly improved by getting involved in what is, after all, the main purpose and function of school life. For the bold of heart, it could be worth investigating the opportunities for teaching all or a significant part of a subject in non-exam areas – KS3 citizenship or PSHE would be a good example, especially if your school often struggles for staff to do this. Of course, you would need some initial support from experienced staff, but if you are confident in presenting information and working with young people then this could be very rewarding and will certainly give you a valuable insight – and probably increase your credibility – when considering the issues faced by teaching staff.
For the more cautious, a less challenging but still very useful exercise would be contributing to an area of the curriculum in which you have particular skills and expertise, either through your role in school or through outside interests. If you are a spreadsheet or database expert, for example, then you may be able to provide support to ICT or business-related lessons by providing and working through practical examples of using the software. Similarly, you may be able to give a talk about the environmental issues facing schools to science or geography groups, or speak about managing personal finances to students. If you have religious convictions that you don’t mind discussing, then you could contribute to the RE syllabus, or outside interests in music, art, drama and so on could also add value to lessons in those areas. If you have an idea for contributing in this way, then begin by speaking to the relevant head of department – in most cases they will be overjoyed if you are prepared to offer something and will support you in ensuring that you are comfortable doing so and that it is relevant to the learning of students.
If you would still like some classroom experience but do not yet feel ready to take part in either of the ways suggested above, then a good starting place may be offering some time to your school’s learning support department to provide in-class support to students in lessons. This would offer a taste of what goes on in the classroom without exposing you to the spotlight – and, in addition, may well give you valuable experience of life from the student’s perspective. Especially if you are a member of the SLT, however, you may need to overcome some suspicion about your motives – so if you do decide to take this approach, you will need to make it clear to teaching staff that you are there in a learning capacity, and that you are not ‘spying’ on them.
The national extended schools agenda, with its requirements for ‘wrap-around’ child care, community access and a range of enrichment activities, is having an impact on all schools. While it may be easy to react negatively to yet another government initiative, the agenda can offer plenty of opportunities for staff who wish to get involved in something beyond the day-to-day curriculum. Many school business managers have been given full or partial responsibility for the development of extended services, which can provide substantial career opportunities and the chance to get more hands-on involvement in learning activities. Even if you haven’t been offered that responsibility, however, there are a range of opportunities for involvement, and many of these would have the advantages of a more relaxed environment than lesson times, and a more flexible/realistic time commitment which does not involve the main school day. There are many possibilities, as outlined below.
Clubs and activities
Depending on your confidence and/or availability, you could either volunteer to run an after-school club, or to support one which already exists. As with contributions to lessons, you could either focus on something related to your role within school, or on a completely separate area of interest.
In the former category, you could consider running an environment club which looks at recycling, litter management and enhancing the environment both inside and outside the school buildings; or if income generation is part of your remit, then you could start a student fundraising club which could come up with ideas, put on events and activities and write to local companies for sponsorship. In the spirit of extended schools you may even decide to involve parents and other members of the community in these activities as well. In the latter category, the possibilities will of course depend on your own particular skills and interests.
If you work official 9-5 hours, then you will need to clear any after-school activities with your headteacher first of all, especially if the activities are not obviously work-related. However, I do not believe that there can be many headteachers who would not appreciate the commitment and interest that would be demonstrated by your suggestion, or who would not realise that involvement with young people could help your understanding and appreciation of the organisation as a whole.
If you can’t afford the time for any regular activity, then attendance on educational visits can provide a way of getting involved without taking up a disproportionate amount of time. You could offer your services at ‘quieter’ times of your year – an ideal time could be the summer term, when there are traditionally a high volume of school trips, and where you may experience a brief relative lull between financial year end/budget completion and the commissioning of the inevitable last-minute building or maintenance works for the summer holidays. Your presence would probably be warmly welcomed by trip organisers – in practical terms, after all, you would be another adult to make up the staffing ratios and you wouldn’t require supply teacher cover. As with clubs and activities, attendance on trips would give you the opportunity to get to know some of the students in an informal setting, with the added bonus of a day out of school! Finally, if, like many business managers, you are ‘lucky’ enough also to be the school educational visits coordinator, then practical experience of participating in trips will be invaluable when fulfilling your role within school.
A third way of getting involved in out-of-hours activities would be contributing to school performances, or to other functions such as fashion shows, carol services and so on. If you have skills in a particular area (eg music, costume, etc) then your presence may be highly desirable. Even if you don’t, however, staff are always needed to help out in a myriad of other ways from serving refreshments to keeping excited performers quiet backstage. If you do plan to get involved in such events, however, be prepared for a very intense period of commitment as the performance draws close, and realise that in most cases you will be relied upon and your involvement will thus be non-negotiable. For this reason, it is essential to avoid over-committing yourself and to be realistic in the level of contribution you offer.
If you are a member of the SLT, it is very likely that your job description will include a standard requirement to support and promote the ethos of your school. In reality, however, the traditional expectations of you in this area may not extend much beyond the occasional hard stare or request to pick up litter. However, there is a lot to be said for offering to make a more proactive contribution to supporting the school’s culture and values. Even if you are not yet an SLT member, there is certainly nothing to prevent you making inroads in this area, and this may actually serve to reinforce an eventual claim to leadership status. Some suggestions follow.
In some schools, staff who don’t teach are expected or at least encouraged to do break and/or lunchtime duties as a matter of course. If your school is not one of these, however, then there is nothing to stop you asking to be included anyway, or to just get on and do it whether you are on an official rota or not. Simply walking the site or standing at duty points during breaks will increase your profile with staff and students, and help you feel like a member of the school community. With your core role in mind, it will also give you a feel for how the circulation and recreation areas function and whether they are appropriate, and for where ‘flashpoints’ are in terms of behaviour issues, litter, graffiti and so on.
In most schools, it is common for members of the leadership team to take a certain number of assemblies each year. However, the business manager is often excluded from the rota as a result of their different professional background. Nonetheless, if you are a relatively confident public speaker, or if you’re getting the taste for it from your contributions to lessons (!) then there is nothing to prevent you from asking to be included in the rota. In terms of subject matter, you can either choose to play it safe by covering topics related to your own role – health and safety, maybe, or the costs of vandalism/carelessness and what the money could be spent on instead – or you can be adventurous and take on a more creative subject (my first ever assembly was on ‘Love’ – the topic given to me by a deputy head with a sense of humour). Whichever you go for, the best way to prepare is to sit in on a few colleagues’ assemblies to get an idea of timings, structure etc. If you struggle for ideas, then there are a number of websites to provide inspiration (see box below left).
In the last couple of years, an increasing prominence has been given to the subject of pupil views and the opportunities (or lack thereof) for students to have a say in the way their school is run. This acknowledgement of the student as consumer – somewhat belated in my own personal view – is now viewed by many as one of the cornerstones of the personalised learning agenda, and is reinforced by the requirement for evidence of pupil perceptions in sections of the Self-Evaluation Form (SEF) required by Ofsted of all schools. For many schools this may be a relatively new concept, and there are therefore likely to be opportunities to get involved in the collection and analysis of feedback from pupils in a wide range of areas. The most traditional arena for this kind of work is normally the school council, and this may be a good starting place for you to obtain a sense of what matters to the students in your school. Furthermore, school council meetings are traditionally dominated by concerns that will overlap your areas of responsibility – canteen services, for example, or the provision (or not) of lockers – so there would be a logical reason for business manager attendance at meetings. However, there is no reason why you could not further develop the concept of pupil voice using tools such as questionnaires and focus groups and covering everything from views on the learning environment to standards of learning and pastoral care. Work such as this would undoubtedly bring you closer to the people who really matter in your school, as well as serving to produce much-needed evidence for the SEF.
I have been very aware whilst writing this article that the majority of school business managers barely have enough time in the day to carry out their own role, let alone to diversify into the kinds of areas that I have been suggesting. I am also aware that any involvement of this type can only be done with the full support of your headteacher and the rest of the school leadership team.
However, I hope that at least some of the ideas outlined above have set some readers thinking about the possibility of squeezing a little extra time from somewhere to broaden their roles in a way that will bring benefits to themselves and their school communities.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/cbbcnews/hi/newsid_4700000/newsid_4701500/4701500.stm Pupil voice
Ruth Bradbury is assistant headteacher (director of school and extended services) at Ribblesdale School in Clitheroe, Lancs