Mutual support

  • 1st July 2024

Alex Jenne

Andrew Maiden talks to Alex Jenne about the relationship between the head and the bursar at his school


Sometimes good friends, sometimes bitter rivals, a school’s future depends on the effective cooperation between a head and bursar. Over the course of the past decade or more, the job descriptions for both have changed markedly.

Heads have had to deal with increasing performance pressures from fee-paying parents and an escalating burden of regulation, as well as concentrating on the primary function: education. There’s also increasing pressure to consider themselves as business-like chief executives.

Meanwhile, the bursar has now become responsible for all the financial, estate management, operational management, commercial asset management, human resources and health and safety (to name just a few) aspects of a school. 

Working together

The relationship between the two offices must work well for the school as a whole to succeed, and this will be a key concern for any governing body. The cost of getting these appointments wrong, both in terms of time and money, can be acute.

When recruiting for either role, a sensible governing body should assess the potential compatibility between the head and the bursar. In a close-knit, often residential environment, tensions between these two figureheads can occur and it’s surprising how often governing bodies fail to see the impact that this can have on their school.

Positive tension can occasionally result in creative growth and development. However, negative tension is invariably disastrous. It breeds poor staff morale, high staff turnover and fuels rumours among existing and prospective parents that all is not well at the school. Hence identifying the best way of nurturing the partnership between the two should be a prerequisite of the selection process for the roles. The relationship should be formalised within a defined structure and it should also include the relationship between the individuals and the governing body.

Leafy suburbs

At Hereward House School in Hampstead, London, the head is Pascal Evans and the bursar is Alex Jenne. It is a small proprietorial family-owned school which was originally launched in 1951.

Leonie Sampson took over as headmistress and proprietor in 1980. She is now chair of governors of this boys’ four to 13 prep school. Jenne is her grandson.

The advisory board helps the school with compliance, financial decisions and the general running of the company. Official oversight comes with twice termly meetings of the board that the head also attends.

Jenne says: “We have invaluable input from three ex-heads, but also my father is one of the governors and he supports with the commercial side, having had a long career working at PwC. He can bring a perspective from outside the education sector, which is increasingly important nowadays. One of our ex-heads, Mike Abraham, who has a great deal of experience within the education sector, provides a lot of practical support and is on-site quite regularly through the term to help us on specific areas, for instance safeguarding and learning walks.

“Obviously, heads and bursars have slightly different goals. My focus is to keep the school running in a financially sound way and ensure we meet the ever-changing compliance landscape, while Pascal’s focus is on getting exceptional exit routes, as well as working hard on the pastoral side. Most of the time, we are pulling in the same direction, but occasionally, there are sticking points with budgets or risk management. It is really important for heads and bursars to appreciate that the other will have a different point of view at times. They need to be able to talk to each other and work things out in a way that suits both parties. What we do here is absolutely maximise what we can do on school life, exit routes, teaching etc, all within budgetary constraints.”

Different altogether

Unlike most relationships within the school, Jenne finds himself in a very different situation to other bursars. “I’ve got a very odd position in that I am the bursar but also sit on the board, so I have to adopt two roles at the same time,” he says. “I have to be conscious that there can be friction between my two roles, and to that extent, try to create a sort of internal firewall inside my head; I’m aware that, as a governor, I see way more than a normal governor would. I recognise that in some ways Pascal and I have an odd relationship, a unique one which actually helps to prompt us towards a collegiate approach.”

It helps that the pair are supported by a very able deputy head, Paul Cheetham. “Quite often, there may be three of us looking at a particular issue,” says Jenne. “This works really well, and either Pascal or I will accept the majority view. It doesn’t usually get to that stage; normally, if there is one of us who is in disagreement, we see this as a sign that we need to properly discuss the issue again. We believe that everyone needs to be at least reasonably content with any outcome and understand that their voice is heard. We don’t want to be in a position where one of the three feels steamrollered. We all feel a deep responsibility to each other.”

Feeling free

It’s important for a head to be given the freedom to lead the school in the way he or she sees fit, with a supportive senior management team and governing body. “If Pascal has a particular idea for the school and thinks it’s absolutely the right way to proceed, then I will support it as a bursar,” continues Jenne. “Several members of the governing body are there as ‘critical friends’ and, with my governor hat on, I am careful not to try to influence them. I’ll be more reticent on those topics. If there’s an issue for governors that I want to raise, for instance, setting up a seven-plus entry process, I will mention it to Pascal and explain why I believe the governors need to discuss that issue. Being on-site every day, there are areas I’m aware of that I wouldn’t otherwise see but governors might need to know about. It would be very easy to lose that trust with Pascal and the other governors without being this transparent.

“I have to say ‘in this part of the job I am the governor; in this part of the job I am the bursar’. And I can’t use the privileged information I have from one role in the other,” adds Jenne.

This duality of role can actually work really well, even though on the surface that might sound a contrary statement. Jenne says: “Sometimes you have governing bodies that don’t understand the pressures that the executive is under or you might have an executive that doesn’t understand the pressures that the governing body is under. With a foot in both camps, I’m a very useful conduit. In that regard, I think I play a crucial role in reducing any potential adversity.

“Pascal formally placed me on the SMT when he became head and this has meant I’ve been able to clearly see the benefit of effectively resourcing systems that support pupils’ progress.”

Best friends?

Heads and bursars need to work together effectively. But do they need to be friends on a personal basis? “Pascal and I have a really friendly relationship,” Jenne says. “We have a shared love of fantasy football. He’s an exceptional fantasy football league player, often offering transfer advice to parents and staff on Friday evenings. Young children have meant I’ve lapsed playing this year, but Pascal’s suggestions were essential in winning my mini-league two years in a row.

“It’s great if you like each other, that makes working together much easier. But the key is that there is professional respect. You don’t necessarily have to be best friends with someone. If you understand their vision, respect what they’re doing, what they’re trying to achieve, then I think you can appreciate where they’re coming from and that there are different ways to achieve the same goal.

“More importantly, the head and bursar need to be shooting in the same direction, looking to achieve the same aims. There will be times when either of you will think that there are different routes to achieve the same result: you could say, ‘I may not have done it this way, but I appreciate your view on this’.

“But whether the relationship is friendly or not, if you start moving in different directions, that’s where you’ve got a significant problem.”

Pascal Evans with Hereward pupils


Andrew Maiden is editor of Independent School Management.

Andrew Maiden

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