Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

The last word

The last word

Drains, rogues galleries, buildings with no teachers...bursars see school life from a different perspective. But even they can't avoid the Ofsted inspector.

It was the recent headlines suggesting that bursars were capable of being appointed as headteachers that set me thinking. (I knew that already but hadn't liked to say so!)

I was appointed bursar in 1995. My previous career had been in the electricity supply industry, where I had occupied a very similar post, dealing with the budget, provision of all support services, and pay and personnel for 500-plus staff. Redundancy was 'offered' at 49, and I became a bursar.

Reaction to my appointment by the leadership team was mixed. One senior colleague put it bluntly - l was neither wanted nor needed, nor would I ever be 'one of us'. Then the caretaker helpfully pointed out a drain deep enough to lose any colleague. "No one would ever find him!" Luckily I made it through those first few weeks.

My earliest impressions of working in a large school were varied. It took years to stop panicking when the changeover bell rang. I had an innate impulse to evacuate the building - on the hour, every hour. Now during fire drills, I stay indoors as coordinator, while my leadership team colleagues get wet/cold/sunburnt in turns, according to season.

Another difficult adjustment was the cult of half-term 'respite' and end-of term 'exhaustion'. I was used to a 52-week working year, which had unpredictable peaks of activity, but there was never a time goal to reach, and then the collapse with relief.

For me there is not still - I am there throughout the holidays as well. But there is an upside. If the teaching staff think that INSET days are marvellous ("No pupils - that's the way to run a school!"), they should try the holidays. No teachers either! Now you're really talking.

The downside is that I still can't take holiday during term time. We thought that once the kids were grown we're be able to take advantage of the more affordable rates and child-free holidays offered when everyone else was in school. Not so. Last year's cruise on the Yangtze River was known as 'the teachers' cruise': the only one that Saga offered during the school holidays.

But I digress. Back on the job, a major preoccupation is the premises. Our Horsa huts and wooden prefabs have long gone. My teaching colleagues greet their purpose-built, modern premises with glee and I have seen a drastic drop in daily maintenance and repairs needed just to keep worn-out buildings usable.

This all reached a stunning nadir when an Ofsted inspector fell flat on his back on a slippery ramp. Imagine my open-mouthed horror at receiving a tip-off from a teacher, who had witnessed it, that the poor chap was on his way to see me, in considerable pain.

He was very good about it really. He had been a head once and managed to see the funny side, even though laughing made him wince with pain as his bruised ribs hurt even more.

Modern buildings are not only great places to teach, they come with wonderful plans - of wiring, drains and the likes. No longer am I beholden to the retired caretaker to pass on hard-won knowledge of the convoluted sewer pipes, gained as he stood up to his ankles in their payload, while he located the cause - his assistant's missing mobile phone that had fallen into an open drain months ago.

The downside is that the new premises are built using fitments that are simply not robust enough to cope with the wear and tear of hundreds of students. And builders are strangely reluctant to finish the job. No list of outstanding remedial works is ever finished, it is only ever halved.

Overall, teachers are a curious bunch. Many are greatly appreciative of the support staff, and mix freely. Others take us totally for granted, and keep their distance. These, I hope, treat their servants more graciously than they treat the support staff.

I do find it insulting when an NQT, younger even than my youngest son, addresses me - white-haired and the longest serving member of the leadership team - by my first name, and then rebukes me for not calling him/her Mr or Miss! That has happened four times now.

If the teachers are curious, then the students are mysterious. The only names I know are those in the Rogues Gallery and the Halls of Infamy, those miscreants whose sins, more committed than omitted, occupy so much of my colleagues' time.

I watch fascinated, and marvelling at their patience and effort, as they try to turn them around. The occasional successes must be sweet indeed.

I don't think that I shall apply to be a head. I'm too old to be considered - at least that's how my ego will console itself!

Andrew Howard is bursar at St Bede's School, Redhill, Surrey


The Last Word always welcomes contributions from members. If you would like to share your humorous observations of school life, please email Sara Gadzik at leader@ascl.org.uk We do offer a modest honorarium.

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