Sunday, 9 September 2012

A Bursar’s Checklist. A one-eyed volunteer and Army Medical Board con. Truro School & Edgehill. Wrekin College. Employment Law. North Devon Breakfast Club. School Common Room. HASAW. School Fees, Governors, Heads, Parent Power,Rolls, Security


Bob in his office at Truro School: his door was always open.
My late husband Bob,1933-2007, was born on Christmas day and was Welsh, from Llanelli. This was a special and winning combination. 

He lost his eye aged 11 while playing bows and arrows with the boy next door.  He conned his way into the army for his National Service during the medical by showing the same eye twice. Here is the story by John Kirk, friend and contemporary of Bob’s in the 5th Royal Tank regiment. “Bob, like all potential officers had to go through a more stringent medical examination than the rank and file. Bob's problem to being passed A1 was his glass eye so when it came to a check on his eyes he had to do a bit of chicanery. The doctor doing the medical asked Bob to cover one eye and read from a test card, which Bob did with ease through the use of his one good eye. When he was asked to cover his other eye all Bob did was to take his hand down and put the other hand over his glass eye and again read from the test card. The doctor did not notice this subterfuge on Bob's behalf and he got through to Mons Officer Cadet School”.

Bob was educated at Wrekin College, Shropshire, did his national service in Korea with the 5th Royal Tank Regiment as a troop leader and went on to Caius College Cambridge to read geography. After qualifying as a chartered accountant, he trained as a Management Consultant with P.E and went into industry with Unilever, Mettoy, and Delta Metal as Financial Director. Bob ended up as Bursar of Truro School for over twenty years which was his favourite job. We had five children too, who also went to the school and were happy there. 
Truro School
Bob resisted a head-hunter’s handsome inducements to move as Bursar at Sherborne School, as he loved Cornwall and the school. It is Methodist and Bob, all unaware of precedent when he arrived, naturally ordered wine when organising the staff Christmas party,  He was enthusiastically thanked by the staff who had never been given more than soft drinks in the past. From then on wine was on the menu. In retirement he was called on to rescue Edgehill School in Devon, and he did just that and enjoyed the extra challenge. He gave a talk on bursaring to the North Devon Business Breakfast Club, and his words of wisdom deserve a wider, worldwide audience.

A BURSAR'S TALE 12 June 2002 by Bob Oram

Because I failed the 11 plus, my long-suffering parents banished me to a boarding school. Whilst there I soon noticed an elderly gentleman in a suit frequently patrolling the campus, usually accompanied by another elderly gentleman in overalls. The suit evidently pointed out tasks for the overalls to fix: grass cutting here, a broken window there, a paint job yonder. In time, I learnt that the suit was a Colonel Shakespeare and his title was "Bursar". I was to remember this some 35 years later.

I am a chartered accountant by trade, but have mostly worked in industry both at home and abroad. In the late 70s I decided to take what's called a change in direction. I was by then Financial Director of MEM, a subsidiary of Delta Metal and we were in the winter of discontent, the pay freeze, a year-long strike and aggravation from Head Office bureaucrats and union militants. I finally cracked! But I needed a stroke of luck, an escape plan which suddenly came when my wife whose family lived in Cornwall pointed out an ad for a Bursar at Truro School. I dimly remembered Col. Shakespeare all those years ago but also knew by then that bursaring involved more importantly finance than handyman stuff so I applied for the post and indeed got lucky! Although I took a massive cut in salary, it was the best move I have ever made both for myself and my family. Job satisfaction in my experience really is more important than money.

It is said that a bursar is a Jack of all trades and master of none. This is certainly true and is continuously being exacerbated by the ever-increasing burden of rules and regulations being spewed out by the bureaucrats in Whitehall and Brussels whose fat cat jobs depend on keeping up the flow of bumph. Nowadays, one has to be part accountant, lawyer, HASAW (Health and Safety at Work) Officer, insurance expert, hotelier, country squire, engineer, debt collector, to mention just a few. Being a diplomat and a counsellor is also a must.


Sadly today, bursaring is a lot more stressful and certainly less fun than when I started at Truro! Indeed the time is fast approaching when it will be unrealistic to expect one person to master all aspects of the job alone. Increasingly one needs the costly advice of experts.


It is only possible here to give you a small insight into aspects of the job of bursar, the major problems facing them today and how things have changed usually for the worse over the years, but here is an alphabetical checklist.

A is for Assisted Places – Introduced by the Tories, but scrapped by Labour, to enable clever but poor children to benefit from an independent education. The scheme was seriously flawed because capital assets were not included in the means test formula. Consequently rich people with creative accountants cynically exploited the system. Many are the stories of millionaire landowners sending their kids to posh public schools entirely at the taxpayers’ expense!

Bursars – A happy band of brothers and increasingly sisters! I quickly found that there is a tight and effective Old Boys network among bursars. You can call on them great and small to pick their brains on any problem and thus avoid reinventing the wheel. A great source of strength but not without critics. A recent professional survey sensationalised in The Times accused us of being rank amateurs and certainly 42% are ex-military and only 12% are qualified accountants but this is as usual an over-simplification because the job is much more than one of man management, getting people to do the right thing rather than sitting at a computer working on spread sheets. Typically it is a second career with only 6% starting out as bursars. The Independent Schools' Bursars Association (ISBA) holds an annual jamboree where we gather from all over the UK. Then regional groups meet termly at one or other campus to discuss common problems. All such events invariably end with a good dinner.

Common Room Most teachers are graduates so they know it all! Concurrently they are surprisingly naive having spent their entire lives going from school to university then back to school again. The real world largely passes them by. So it is vital that a bursar establishes the right relationship with and understands the breed whose natural tendency is to view the old bean counter with hostility as being the spoilsport always saying no. I make a habit of visiting the Common Room often to chat them up but I know of a few colleagues who are actually denied access.

Disaster Planning Especially for school trips. The tendency nowadays is to blame anyone in sight when things go wrong. The time is fast approaching when ski-trips and visits to nature reserves or historical sites will be a thing of the past. Staff are increasingly less prepared to expose themselves to such hassle. Sad!

Employment Law People especially teachers are virtually unsackable today and know more about their rights than their responsibilities but this is the same for any employer now. Blame the compensation culture!

Fees Fees are a real problem both paying them and collecting them. Our current annual day fee is £7500. When you gross this up for tax, what you have to earn to pay it becomes horrific. When you multiply it for siblings, suicide is easier! Yet it is constantly amazing how many parents, most of whom did not attend a fee-paying school themselves, are prepared to make this sacrifice and is a damning indictment of the state alternative. It is not surprising that it also means problems for bursars when bad debts invariably arise and effective fee administration is a major headache. The situation got worse with the Foot and Mouth crisis and the apparent collapse in tourism. The games parents to avoid payment are legion, even to the extent of offering sex I'm told.
Governors Bursars are employed by the governors so it obviously pays to cultivate your own. Most bursars also act as Clerk to the governing body anyway. I doubt now that this quaint old British system of the great and good, often complete amateurs presiding over the disposition of millions for no remuneration whatsoever is appropriate for the 21st century but that is the system we have.

Head  Whilst it is impossible to keep governors happy be in no doubt that the bursar’s real boss is the head. The fact that his titular boss is the Chairman of the Board is because in times past some corrupt Heads have made off with the family silver and the bursar’s so-called independence is one of the checks and balances in place to thwart future lapses. There are many tales of unscrupulous heads of famous public schools running scams but they never get to the Press being quickly covered up by the embarrassed trustees. But Heads of independent schools are the nearest thing to feudal lords that you will find today. Their power is seemingly absolute. Thus it is vital that the bursar has a very close, not necessarily friendly (but that helps) working relationship with the Head, as an unequal partner. Unbelievably, I know of one case where the Head and Bursar did not speak for a year. The bursar lost his nerve and left! 

Parent Power I said that the power of Heads is absolute but that is slowly being eroded by increasingly militant parents. When I started, the attitude of parents was one of total subservience, almost as if they were the pupils not the paying customers. Maybe they recalled their own time when you only went to the Head's study for a good thrashing! Today that attitude is changing aided and abetted by the performance tables described shortly.


Rolls Bums on seats is the name of the game. There was a time when poaching pupils from competitors was absolutely taboo, simply not done! No longer and bribery and corruption in the guise of bogus scholarships, bursaries and whatever other inducements are commonplace nowadays.

Security it continually amazes how schools are a magnet for every kind of voyeur, nut case or pervert and campus security is always a worry. The place is wide open but the law of trespass in this country has been a joke since that nut sat on the Queen's bed with impunity. CCTV is often impractical and registration at reception points with name tags is a bore but it is a shame that our society has created this menace.