3 Jul 2018 | by Peter Neale

Do you ever wonder what life is like as Bursar of an independent school?  Is the grass greener there?  Are the pressures easier to bear?

Earlier this year, following a period of illness and subsequent unemployment, I was appointed Bursar at an independent preparatory school for children aged 4 to 13. Having spent the previous sixteen years working as Business Manager at three secondary schools (two Local Authority and one Multi Academy Trust), I now find myself in a position to make an initial comparison between the fee-paying and statutory education sectors.

Leaving ideology aside, I have seen more similarities than differences between the two worlds.



An independent school shares the same fundamental responsibilities in areas from Safeguarding to Health and Safety, and from employment law to GDPR.



As with the state sector, there are several models of independent school organisation.  At mine, the Governors are Trustees of a registered charity that is also a registered company limited by guarantee.  They are volunteers and custodians but the buck stops with them.  If things don’t go well there is nobody to bail them out.  Having experienced many years of Local Authority and Academy Trust interference (both positive and negative), I find Governors nimble on their feet, ready to listen and fully prepared to make big decisions when required.  They are, however, considerably more ‘hands on’ than I have seen before and have sometimes carried out duties and roles that I would expect to do myself. 



Like me, you may imagine unlimited wealth and fathomless resources in independent education but, also like me, you’d probably be surprised.  At every school where I have worked, and my current school is no exception, there are many hardworking talented people who devote a tremendous amount of energy to developing and supporting the children in their care often despite, rather than because of, the resources at their disposal.



I feel this is one of the areas where I can make the greatest impact.  Small procedural changes have reaped significant ‘quick wins’ with plenty of scope for more, and challenging relationships with existing suppliers has already reduced costs.


Parental Expectation

This is a fundamental difference.  I have found the vast majority of parents to be understanding and supportive but there is no doubt they have paid a premium for a perceived level of service and therefore expect results.  This is a business that provides education and, as with all commercial enterprises, cash is king.  Collecting fees on time is absolutely fundamental for the ability of an independent school to survive and prosper, and I have already had opportunities to draw upon my banking experience from many years ago in enforcing credit control measures.  


In general terms the pace of life feels slower and problems seem less intense.  I’m working an average 50 hours a week as opposed to 70-80 in my last job, although much of this is down to the fact that my current school is quite considerably smaller, and I’m back to full health and confidence so, at this moment in time and from these points of view, I can thoroughly recommend a switch.  While this type of role has traditionally been undertaken by a retired officer from the armed forces, I am sure that an experienced state school Business Manager has all the requisite skills to succeed as a Bursar in the independent sector and, over time, quietly revolutionise the role. 


By Peter Neale - July 2018