Challenging the myths of the bursar role

The independent education sector attracts a high number of service leavers, but equally, can attract a great number of assumptions too, not least that the sector can be elitist and commercially naive. Here, Bursar of Davieson School, Caroline Purdom, tackles some of these preconceptions and shares her own experiences of what can be a highly demanding, yet fulfilling, role.

A school will always desire someone who can stand up and take the lead

Although leadership is more important in bigger schools, where you could be leading a team of 100 people – from the guy who cuts the grass, to the HR directors, Caroline believes this is a transferable quality that’s ‘definitely sought after’.

She says: “For teachers, standing out doesn’t always come naturally, so schools are looking for people who can confidently take the lead when it comes to running the operational side of the school.”

She adds: “I rarely leave school at the end of the day achieving what I went in to do that morning, the priority list can constantly change. From the school’s perspective, it’s your ability to be genuinely flexible and adaptable that appeals.”

Strategic planning

Even though you may not be directly involved in this, it’s important to know the staff’s priorities and objectives.

Caroline says: “When staff have a grand vision, it’s the bursar who realises they’ll need money to achieve this – we’re the realists who can join up all the dots and make it happen. And again, the ability to put plans into action is a big reason why ex-military are sought after.”

She adds: “Your management experience will also be seen as highly beneficial. However, it’s important to acknowledge when you may be out of your league and need to get an expert in. For example, if there are HR issues you’re not sure on.

Schools love ex-military’s multi-disciplinary backgrounds but don’t under-estimate the need for specific skills

This role can be labelled as particularly suited to a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ individual. However, this under-estimates the need for specific skills such as financial acumen. “Don’t dismiss this as unimportant”, warns Caroline Purdom.

“Numbers are a critical part of the role, few jobs are advertised that don’t talk about finances. You don’t need to be a trained accountant but most schools will ask for an accounting qualification or financial management course.”

However, schools do vary on what they prioritise. They may prefer a candidate with more operational experience, especially if they already have a qualified accountant on the team.

Challenges of the role

“It can be difficult to manage parents’ expectations”, says Caroline. “And there are occasions when I think our money would be better spent ensuring the rugby pitch is well-maintained, rather than spending a fortune on cakes for the parents to eat whilst they watch their children playing sport.”

Long gone are the days when schools could be more complacent and ‘commercially naive’

Caroline says: “Now, they have to save money, be cost-effective, reduce waste and not carry operational risks in-house. The independent school sector is also regulated by Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI – its version of Ofsted) and a poor report will ultimately drive parents away and, therefore, the money.”

Caroline adds: “One way to impress in an interview is to take in the school’s ISI report and describe how you intend to achieve the improvements they suggest.”

Further information

ISBA