For a school bursar, the ‘jack of all trades’ stamp is to be positively encouraged

If you’re considering becoming a bursar, take some advice from straight-talking Danny Boswell who will dispel any preconceptions you may have concerning the career. Danny retired from the Services as a junior Lieutenant Commander before he was appointed as a bursar to a prep school in 2010.

The days of the school bursar being a semi-retired chap who turned up for a few hours in the morning and spent the afternoon on the golf course are long gone, if they ever existed. As a second career it will require every bit as much time and effort as your first. You can expect to work long hours, particularly in your first two years. However, in return for this, you can expect:

  • Considerable autonomy and responsibility
  • The opportunity to meet disparate challenges on a daily basis
  • To see regular tangible results from your efforts
  • The chance to build your own team, and lead them
  • To go home every night
  • School fee discounts for your children
  • Free or subsidised accommodation (more so in the case of boarding schools)

Many people will advise you on leaving the Services that you must specifically target a certain role; that trying to market yourself as a ‘jack of all trades’ will lose you credibility. For a school bursar, though, it is to be positively encouraged. In larger schools some functions will be delegated, but the bursar nevertheless has overall responsibility for finance, HR, regulatory compliance, domestic services and administration.

Naval types might think of the role as being akin to the XO of a ship and this is true in the sense that you run the enabling functions. However, it is important to note that in a ship the Captain will have done the XO’s job and a number of junior officers will aspire to do it. Things are different in a school, where few people know or care much what your job entails and some will cast you as a sort of pantomime villain whose only role is to say ‘no’ to things.

Essential skills and requirements:

  • The single most important requirement is an ability to build and maintain good working relationships at all levels, with the most important of all being between the Head and Bursar. If this is working properly each will provide a check and balance on the other.
  • The fact that you had overall responsibility for £100M of NATO petty cash expenditure will not impress governors who need someone to manage a £5M P&L. You need to know the mechanics of running budgets and producing management accounts.
  • Powers of written and oral communication are also very important. All correspondence must be clear, concise and legally watertight but at the same time you need to demonstrate patience, tolerance and diplomacy. In other words, fluffy enough to encourage the ‘give and take’ on which all schools rely but robust enough to stand up at the subsequent Employment Tribunal.
  • An ability to prioritise is critical if you are ever going to go home. The disparate nature of the job means that there will be many demands on your time and the role may be more loosely defined than perhaps you’re used to

Further info:

ISBA ‘Becoming a Bursar’ section

The National Association of School Business Management – focuses on state schools and runs various courses.

In his next blog, Danny will focus on how to research the right school for you and increase your chances of a successful application.