'I enjoyed the Russian roulette aspects of the job'
Richard Metcalfe remembers the day he was first appointed as a bursar, nervous that his lack of a pair of brogues would hold him back
Like many bursars, my venture into the profession was as a second career: this is hardly surprising, as there is no real career path towards becoming a bursar – nor, for that matter, once you become one, other than moving to another school.
A few bursars are appointed from other posts within a school, but most come from outside - around a third from the armed forces, a third from accountancy and finance, and the rest from a variety of other careers, including a small handful from my background in estates. Interestingly, of all the bursars I have known, only a couple regarded the career move as a mistake and moved back out of the job.
No careers adviser had ever mentioned being a bursar – nor, for that matter other interesting jobs which come to mind, such as wine taster or restaurant critic - so becoming a bursar had never been on my radar. I had gone to my university as an undergraduate and 31 years later was still there, working in the estates department: my career had progressed as far as it could go - I had been director for ten years and was increasingly frustrated by the bureaucracy strangling the sector and by the ponderous decision-making processes.
"Could I cut the mustard? I wasn’t even an accountant."
I needed a change, but where could I go? Then my wife saw the advertisement for bursar at a large independent school only a short journey away. I had encountered many bursars in my university career, mainly male and many of them ex-services, in those days often rather stereotyped in their dress and manner. But, could I cut the mustard as a bursar myself? My wardrobe was devoid of yellow corduroys, twill shirts and Lovat jackets and I didn’t have a pair of brogues. I wasn’t even an accountant.
Still, I thought I would give it a go and was invited for interview. Lacking any recent interview experience, I was rather apprehensive, but as I walked into the school, I felt the aura of my old, very similar, school, which put me at ease. The interviews went well and I managed to bluff my way through the one testing my rather limited knowledge of accountancy. At lunch I even managed to eat the spaghetti bolognese without splashing it down my tie and by the time I left the school I was sure that this was a place I wanted to work. Much to my surprise, I was offered the job that afternoon: in a slight state of shock, I phoned my wife (after all, this had been her idea) and asked what I should do. “For heaven’s sake accept it before they change their minds.” So, I did.
It is the best decision I made in my career – actually, my only career change, but still the best I could have made. Six months later, having for 28 years lived within a mile of work, I was up and out rather earlier than I had been used to, heading to the station for the 7.26am.
I started the week before term began and the school seemed a haven of calm: my soon-to-be predecessor showed me all the nooks and crannies, introduced me to a lot of support staff whose names I immediately forgot and worked his way through two large, rather mind-numbing, lever-arch files of instructions which he had produced on how to run the school.
"I began to see what a rewarding job I had found."
I was barely beginning to understand the complexities a large school when term began and the school was suddenly full of staff and pupils all busily dashing around. All, that is, except for me: for a while I could only watch and was left wondering if I would ever actually have a role to play in running the school.
However, I quickly began to get into the swing of things and started contemplating a few changes: more importantly, I was also beginning to see what a varied, interesting and rewarding job I had found, with a refreshing lack of bureaucracy. It was great to be close to the educational coal-face, where I felt I could actually help to improve the life chances of young people; I also rather enjoyed the Russian roulette aspects of the job, in that you could never be quite be sure what might crop up next. Little did I then realise that rewarding aspects such as these, together with working among a great bunch of people, would help me happily get out of bed at that early hour for what turned out to be the next seventeen years.
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