How to Become an Independent School Bursar

Danny Boswell served in the Royal Navy and is now the bursar of Farleigh School. He shares his insights into this career.

Being a school bursar is a demanding but rewarding role. You will work long hours, particularly in the first year or two, but you will have the privilege of being involved in providing a high quality education for the next generation.

Benefits

  • Considerable autonomy and responsibility
  • Meeting different challenges on a daily basis
  • Seeing tangible results of your work
  • Building your own team, and leading them
  • School fee discounts for your children
  • Sometimes in a boarding school, free or subsidised accommodation.

Responsibilities

  • Finance – planning, policy, budgets, cash flow, investments, fee billing, debtors and management accounts
  • HR and Legal – recruitment, statutory checks, contracts, salaries, pensions, training, appraisal, discipline and grievances
  • Estate – insurance, maintenance, grounds, security, utilities, strategic development, planning, tendering and project management of new builds, staff accommodation and holiday lettings
  • Regulatory compliance – including Health and Safety, Data Protection, Charities and Accounting, and the Independent School Standards Regulations (ISSRs)
  • Domestic Services – responsible for catering, cleaning and transport

Requirements

  • Build and maintain good working relationships – especially with the Head, so you can provide constructive criticism and advice
  • Financial acuity – you need to know the mechanics of running budgets and producing management accounts, and not just the top-level overview
  • Communication skills – all correspondence must be clear, concise and legally watertight but also diplomatic
  • Ability to prioritise workload – there will be many demands on your time and the job role requires a flexible approach, balancing daily tasks with achieving the strategic objectives
  • Know your limits – you are unlikely to be a qualified accountant, employment lawyer, architect, quantity surveyor, structural engineer and project manager, so you need to know when to get advice and support
  • Ability to learn quickly – this is something military veterans, having changed jobs every few years, can usually demonstrate
  • A team player – be prepared to ‘muck in’, particularly in smaller schools where everyone has multiple roles.

Prepare

Opportunities

  • Most bursar vacancies will be advertised on the ISBA website, but they can also appear in broadsheet newspapers and specialist recruitment agencies’ websites
  • When you find an opportunity, research the school, checking if it is right for you
  • First research the school on the Charity Commission and Companies House websites, downloading financial accounts for several years to identify trends and insights
  • Research the school using a variety of resources, including ISI/Ofsted reports, the school’s website, Wikipedia, the Good Schools Guide, Tatler, Mumsnet etc.
  • Ensure the school is in good financial health. Look for an investment surplus (basically EBITDA) of around10% in a day school and around12% in a boarding school. Look for trends in surpluses (or deficits), staff costs and pupil numbers over the past few years. Check finance costs as a % of net fee income (some commentators say it should not be above 4%). Has the provision for bad debts risen over the years?

Application
Every bursar role advertised will probably attract 50 to 100 applicants, with many having previous bursarial experience. Fortunately, as a Service Leaver you are likely to be a good candidate, but you need to show that you are.

  • If the advert says to write a short, hand-written covering letter outlining your specific interest and suitability for the post then do just that
  • When you say you have done something, do not just stop there, say why it will make you a better bursar – even if you think it should be obvious
  • Have at least one civilian referee who can attest to your professional skills, demonstrating that you can work effectively outside the Armed Forces
  • Show how you suit the school’s culture – many have strong identities and want people who are a good fit; if you live far away say that you are willing to relocate.

School governing bodies are often conservative and may prefer to recruit someone with direct experience, or a qualified accountant, so do not be too disheartened if your application is unsuccessful. The next one will be better.

Salaries
A bursar is usually the second most senior member of staff, and this should be reflected in the pay package (particularly as they do not get anything like the holidays of their academic colleagues). Salaries do vary widely, though, between types, locations and sizes of school: from perhaps £35,000 in a small, rural, day prep school to well over £150,000 in a large senior or all-age boarding school in the South East. You can identify the likely salary range of the current incumbent by looking at the ‘higher paid employees’ section of the school accounts.

Remember, headline salaries do not give the full picture and you should also consider other benefits. These can include the provision of accommodation; school fee discount; health insurance and pension contributions. Schools also often provide free meals and snacks; use of the gym and/or swimming pool and a number of other benefits. They are also vibrant and often beautiful places to work, with diligent and dedicated colleagues.

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