School & District Management

Bursars Ensure Budgets Pay Off For Students

By Robert C. Johnston — September 20, 2000 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 3 min read

Corrected: The London-based bursars organization referred to in the story is incorrectly cited. The correct name is the National Bursars Association.

As school directors in England feel the weight of added duties handed to them over more than a decade of radical decentralization, a new job description is emerging for the No. 2 administrative post.

Such people, who hold a variety of titles, including bursar, business manager, and administrator, are responsible above all for making sure that their schools live within a budget. Doing so is crucial because individual schools in England now control about 85 percent of their own spending.

From setting staffing patterns to deciding textbook purchases and making school repairs, business managers are joining school heads and local governing bodies in charting the courses of their schools.

In addition, business mangers take on almost every other duty that might distract the school’s director from focusing on student achievement.

That may mean shopping for the best deal on meal services or a plumbing repair, and making sure teachers get their paychecks on time.

Elizabeth Wood, above left, Angela Thody, and Fergus O’Sullivan have written a book showing how bursars, akin to financial officers, can help boost achievement.
—Robert C. Johnston

Once associated exclusively with nongovernment schools, business managers are becoming the second half of school leadership’s one-two punch in England.

“Realistically, school heads can’t do it all,” said Derrick Tullett, the bursar of a respected secondary school in London. Mr. Tullett was a longtime teacher there before moving into his current post. “They are in an overload situation. If they know you are a counterpart, it’s a great benefit to them.”

Focusing on Results

At the same time, the business managers must also blow the whistle on untoward school spending.

“Bursar loyalty is one thing, but when spending damages the education of kids, that’s another thing,” said Fergus O’Sullivan, who directs a new and growing program to train school business managers at the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside here.

Mr. O’Sullivan co-wrote From Bursar to School Business Manager, a concise academic look at the changing role of the country’s school business managers. As in his college program, the book urges the business officials—who often come from the private sector or the military—to consider their role in raising student achievement.

Focusing on academic results was also a major theme during a national conference here this past summer sponsored by the National Bursars Organization, the London-based professional organization for school business officers.

“This conference has been a bit of a revelation for me,” said Alan Hayward, the bursar at Gryphon School, a 1,200-student secondary site in Sherborne, which is in the southern part of England. He oversees a $4.5 million budget. “I’ve never seen myself helping to educate children, but helping those who educate children.”

How does a business manager help raise student achievement? Val Johnston, the bursar at Ely Community College, has a lot of thoughts on that.

When she was hired part time a few years ago, the former private-sector personnel officer found that the secondary school was more than $250,000 in the red—largely because it was spending far too big a share of its budget on staff.

“I quickly realized it was a job that couldn’t be done three days a week,” said Ms. Johnston, who is now a full-time staff member.

Once the deficit was under control, the school, which now budgets up to five years in advance, could focus on spending for new instructional resources, such as computers and textbooks.

Hoping to keep the staff happy, Ms. Johnston took over the school’s payroll from the county, which she said was remote and slow to respond to mistakes. She helps make money by coordinating technology courses at the school for local businesses.

Bursars “don’t get satisfaction from working directly with children, but we can see how we make a difference,” Ms. Johnston said. “The only reason the children did what they did was because I helped them get the resource.”

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