Paul Ainsworth and Josephine Smith argue that it is increasingly important for school finance managers – especially those aspiring to lead schools – to understand the process of teaching and learning

As school financial managers become more involved in school leadership, gaining an understanding of the learning process becomes more important. Our belief is that every decision in a school – be it about buildings, personnel, or equipment – should be informed by a vision for learning. The challenge for a school financial manager is to develop the fullest understanding of the learning processes, so that this can form a basis for their decision making.

A changing role

It is now typical for financial managers to play an active role in senior leadership team (SLT) meetings. The days have gone where a bursar purely attended a business meeting with the head to consider the state of the budget and then was absent from any strategic decision-making processes. It could be common for the other senior leaders to have as little knowledge of the state of the budget as the bursar did of any teaching and learning issues. As bursars have become financial managers their role in the running of the school has changed from purely administrative to one of leadership. In many schools the financial manager is also seen as the first port of call on personnel matters and can be expected to give guidance on an array of issues from recruitment to maternity rights. Hence they are regularly drawn into the recruitment of teaching staff, while rarely participating in the interview process. Historically bursars have also line managed the non-teaching staff, from receptionists to premises officers. In recent years, the range of non-teaching staff in schools has greatly increased. The financial manager may find their line management responsibilities encompass colleagues such as learning resource assistants and cover supervisors who are employed to work in classrooms. As schools renovate and oversee new building programmes the school financial manager is often required to project manage. This necessitates consideration of how the completed structures can aid the learning processes and how their phased building can have the least impact on attainment. Many financial managers are also playing a more central role in day-to-day issues that bring them into greater contact with students; as part of duty teams, acting as student mentors or participating in department review processes by chairing student focus groups for example. The need to understand the learning process will be essential for those school financial managers aspiring to be heads (see bottom of page), but it also remains important for those without such ambitions. So what can be done to gain such an understanding?

Studying the teaching standards

Suitable graduates can take several routes into becoming classroom teachers. Perhaps the most common is still the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). Other routes offer similar courses in which prospective classroom teachers have to meet government-set standards agreed with training institutions. If financial managers wish to have a similar handle on teaching and learning practices it is entirely possible to examine these standards too. The standards fall into three main categories, each subdivided, resulting in 42 areas of competence that a trainee teacher must provide evidence they have met.

  • The first standard concentrates on professional values and practice: communicating with staff, students, parents and other relevant school stakeholders for example, or understanding statutory frameworks and promoting positive values.
  • Standard 2 is about knowledge and understanding, covering both subject knowledge and also other key skills.
  • Standard 3 is the area most financial managers will understandably have least experience in and that is teaching, broken down into planning expectations and targets, monitoring and assessment and teaching and classroom management. While subject knowledge is perhaps a less crucial area for development for the business manager, standards such as promoting equal opportunities in the classroom or the use of assessment strategies, meeting students’ needs and recording progress are all highly relevant to a financial manager who needs to know how key issues are translated into classroom practice in a school they might manage.

Grappling with initiatives and strategies

Any media-savvy financial manager, or anyone who has stood next to the staffroom water cooler and heard classroom teachers complain about yet another government directed initiative, will be aware of the many new strategies that a school is required to respond to. While some initiatives refine already good practice in schools others come to dominate curriculum changes, impact on funding and change the way classroom teachers may plan, deliver or assess students’ work or manage the pastoral life of a school. Qualified classroom teachers would currently be expected to have a sound grasp of the National Curriculum, national strategies in literacy, numeracy and IT as well as the foundation subjects, and recent developments in the 14-19 curriculum. Perhaps more within the comfort zone of a financial manager is the newly formatted data package Raise Online which replaces the PANDA, available for schools to chart their attainment in comparison with other schools. As with any professional development opportunity, financial managers would undoubtedly benefit from structured support systems if they are to embrace a wider understanding of how to facilitate good teaching and learning within a school. They are of course in the best place to do this, surrounded by a wide group of experienced staff, some of whose job it is already to share good practice and develop other members of staff. A typical PGCE student will have access to the advice of a university tutor, a school initial teacher training coordinator and a co-tutor. As these roles exist in schools already it would not be a major leap to include the financial manager in some of the readily available training that is on offer in schools each year. Just as student teachers will observe the role of the tutor in day-to-day operation, the financial manager might also, for a period of time, be attached to a tutor group and arrive at an understanding of the typical pastoral issues affecting students. The financial manager could also join weekly training offered to student teachers on subjects such as cross-curricular citizenship and how it is delivered to students, the provision made for able, gifted and talented students or students with special educational needs. Topics such as assessment for learning or home-school communication are also often covered by the school ITT coordinator and it would not take a financial manager away from their key role for too long in order to become knowledgeable about the day-to-day business of student progress.

Other routes to understanding

If this is impractical perhaps a financial manager could at least have a member of the teaching staff who is willing to act as mentor and together a personalised training programme could be devised that would target areas for particular development or plug gaps in experience or knowledge. Other ways of becoming familiar with key issues of teaching and learning might be to attend department meetings, year meetings or whole-staff training, considering discussions from the viewpoint of a student or classroom teacher rather than a budget holder. Of course there is also much to be gained from shadowing other members of the school, both teachers and students, to see how financial decisions impact on classroom practice.

Aspiring heads: the need for broad experience

Should school leaders always be teachers? This is a debate that made the national press following proposals published by PriceWaterhouseCoopers in January 2007. It has been fascinating to read the views presented in School Financial Management by Ruth Bradbury and other correspondents since then. This is not a new debate; indeed in November 1998 the Select Committee on Education and Employment wrote: ‘We have also recommended that the DfEE and the TTA develop routes to allow exceptional individuals without school teaching experience, to train for the NPQH and so be eligible to become headteachers.’ In our experience there are good, satisfactory and poor headteachers. The common thread that links the first group is not qualifications gained, subjects taught or years of experience, but an instinctive empathy for recognising how to promote the highest standards of teaching and learning. If a non-teacher became a head, would a senior teacher on the management team, with sole responsibility for teaching and learning, be better able to keep a more effective focus on curriculum and assessment issues? If this is true, it might just be better to have a principal drawn from outside teaching, who is able to look after the multitude of other management challenges. It appears logical that the first non-teacher headteachers might be drawn from colleagues already in school and automatically the most suitable candidates for the role seem to be bursars or school business managers, the main readership of School Financial Management. Perhaps the first scenario where this is most likely to occur would be in an independent school. Many independent schools are run very much on business lines and there is not always the same focus on developing teaching and learning as there is in many state schools. Headteachers are often engaged in marketing their school and carefully balancing budgets to pay for developments in buildings. In this situation it would be possible to see an experienced school financial manager being appointed as a head, especially in a school that is suffering financial difficulties. In a state school, particularly with the requirement for the NPQH, such progression is more difficult. If a school had a financial manager who took a wide role in the leadership of the school while studying for the NPQH, and the governors found themselves in a position where they needed an acting headteacher, the financial manager could be promoted to this post. Similar situations have resulted in deputy heads being appointed as secondary school heads in their early thirties. The role of the financial manager has greatly changed in recent years and many are now expected to be involved in the overall leadership of the school, including matters related to teaching and learning. There are numerous examples where the financial manager’s role has developed away from the balance sheet to whole-school leadership. The National College for School Leadership has recognised this and non-teachers are now eligible for both the NPQH and the leading pathways programmes. To pass these programmes, financial managers need to develop a broad experience of whole-school leadership. They need to ask questions about which experiences they can involve themselves in so they can develop their own vision of learning as effectively as that of a qualified teacher.

Paul Ainsworth is the deputy head at Belvoir High School in Leicestershire.
Josephine Smith is the head of English and extended senior team member at Casterton Business and Enterprise College in Rutland.