Mark Milling

More than just paying the bills

<em>Mark Milling</em> on the role of a modern school bursar

More than just paying the bills
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Earlier this year I attended my first Independent Schools Bursars Association conference. Perhaps it was because it was in Harrogate, Herriot Country — but I couldn’t help noticing a severe case of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’. Bursars certainly come in a bewildering variety of breeds — some are preened, some are plumped and some are rather more unkempt; some are starting to creak a little around the edges and some are spring chickens, while sizes vary from Chihuahua to Saint Bernard (complete with flask of brandy). I even spotted one fellow who was the spitting image of Mrs Pumphrey’s pampered Pekinese, Tricki-Woo. Yet, despite the enormous diversity, we most definitely have one thing in common: we are all passionate about our schools and the education that they provide.

The bursar’s role, with the help of our teams, is to provide a safe and well maintained campus, financial acumen and good planning. As Sir John Jones, the keynote speaker in Harrogate, wisely noted, what a parent wants above all else is a school where their children can be safe, make friends and be happy. It is the duty of each and every member of a school’s staff to ensure that they make this happen.

We, as bursars, are very aware of the immense financial sacrifices parents make in order to send their children to an independent school. Fees have increased at a faster rate than wage inflation for many years, which is due to many factors, including an increase in consumer expectations. As a pupil at Radley College in the 1980s I lived cheerfully in pretty basic circumstances. There was a thriving black market economy for secondhand desks, posters, lamps and drapes. One year I even had to provide my own carpet. Quite rightly, nobody would put up with this today (and I am sure that subsequent bursars at Radley have changed things).

Our customers also desire smaller class sizes and more educational support staff. Furthermore, the costs of meeting regulatory requirements, fuel bills, staff pension contributions, IT provision and maintaining grand old estates have all rocketed. This has priced many of our traditional customers out of the market for private education. This is a great shame, and is also a risk to the future of the independent sector.

So what can we do to reduce this affordability gap? Well, a bursar obviously needs to ensure that money received in fees is spent in the most efficient manner possible. Schools also have to make the most of the commercial opportunities that their estates can provide in terms of lettings, summer schools, Easter revision courses and so on. At the same time we must not forget our charitable status and our obligations and desires to provide public benefit. This is a difficult balancing act.

We should also try to become more American in our approach to raising funds from alumni and other stakeholders. These are vital in financing both capital projects and bursaries to maintain our support to hard-pressed parents and to give top-class pupils from deprived backgrounds access to a transformational education. At Lancing College we are lucky enough to have over an acre of land per pupil. Our incredible chapel and Oxbridge-style quads provide inspiration and awe to pupils from all walks of life and from around the globe. Our Foundation Office is working hard to ensure that this glorious estate is around for another 150 years. More and more independent schools are starting to realise the value of relationship-building with alumni, but the results can take many years to come to fruition.

We must also make the most of advances in technology to drive efficiency. The use of smart devices, innovative software and the internet in education is accelerating at a phenomenal rate, and we must focus on how we can use these to best effect.

When it comes to the fabric of the estate, most schools are not blessed with significant endowments. These establishments will have to be brave, and not get too carried away with the facilities arms-race. Of course we need to provide opportunities and quality activities to our pupils, but a £1 million sports hall is as much fun to run around in as a £10 million one. Sometimes schools focus too much on appealing to parents when it is the children who spend time there — and they often have very different wants and wishes.

Furthermore, I am convinced that parents are starting to admire schools which are brave enough to lay prestige projects aside and focus on their core product — a top-class education in a pleasant environment with plenty of extra-curricular opportunities, while ensuring their pupils are safe and happy.

After all, what is it that we remember from our school days? It is our inspirational teachers, our mad experiences, our friends, our access to space and support and intelligent adult guidance. Of course there need to be clear rules and boundaries, but the pupil needs to be trusted, treated with respect, kept safe, smiled at and listened to. That way each child will succeed and flourish.