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Best in the business

What do awards for business excellence have to do with best practice in special needs? Carolyn O'Grady finds out.

Foxdenton, a special school in Oldham, is a much-decorated school. Last month it won the European Quality prize for business excellence. Last year the school won the UK version of the award - the Business Excellence Award - in the category for small and medium enterprises across the public and private sector. Also on its stationery are the Charter Mark logo, an award that focuses on customer service; the Investors in People logo, which is for staff development; and the Unisys Service Excellence Award, which focuses on organisational excellence.

But the Rolls Royce of quality awards is the Business Excellence Award. The British Quality Foundation, which runs it, says that it "goes to those outstanding organisations which set standards for others to follow". It is the most holistic and embraces all the other models.

Foxdenton caters for 110 children aged between two and 11 with special educational needs arising from physical or medical difficulties. The school motto is "Aiming for Excellence" and they seem to be achieving it. But what do business excellence awards have to do with excellence in special needs?

"We want to do our best and we need a system to help us along the way," says headteacher Mel Farrar. "Business models structure our continuous improvement. They make us reflect on what we're doing and we get first-class feedback."

In the case of the UK Business Excellence Award this feedback comes in the form of a thick document detailing the school's strengths and weaknesses. It is enough to keep the school busy for years, according to Mel Farrar.

Mel Farrar is no stranger to business: he studied for a master's degree in management in l988. But though the excellence model may contain its fair share of business jargon, management-speak is not his day-to-day language. On the contrary, his conversation is almost exclusively about people. "There are four key principles for engaging those with a stake in the school - from pupils, parents and staff, through suppliers and the local authority to the Department for Education and Employment - in making a successful organisation," he says. "Involve, inform, empower and recognise - all of which apply to people. If you are doing that for your stakeholders you're not doing badly."

That one major group of stakeholders is happy is evidenced by the school's most recent survey of parents, which found that 100 per cent would recommend the school to other parents. (The school has organised an annual parental opinion survey, canvassing views on many aspects of school policy, for the past 15 years. "Why should the OFSTED be the first to know what your parents think?" says Mel Farrar.) Strategy, processes, evaluative culture, customer focus. All these you expect to find in a submission for a business excellence award, and they are there, but it comes as something of a surprise to read about Eileen's knickers as well. Eileen McGurk, a nursery nurse, went to a market in the summer holidays and saw an offer for children's knickers. Knowing these would be useful in school at the eginning of term she bought two dozen pairs. "No need to refer up, no need to get advance permission, she knew she would be supported," says the head. Staff empowerment and devolved budgetary control is the management terminology; "trusting your staff" is how Mel Farrar puts it.

Another instance is that of Pauline Nicholl's initiative. An escort on a school bus and a mobile phone owner, Pauline evolved her own system for letting parents know when the bus would arrive so that everything could be ready. She gave three rings on the telephone five minutes in advance. She told the school about it, her initiative was taken up officially and escorts were given mobiles. Later the authority adopted the scheme. Best practice is implemented by staff, comes to the attention of management and becomes standard practice.

Everyone's ideas are sought. Taxi drivers were asked for their opinion about how they thought the school's service could be improved. "In any school, if your taxis, or whoever delivers the children, mess up it wrecks the day," says Mel Farrar. "We wanted to see how we could avoid this. The drivers drew attention to the jam of wheelchairs outside the school and how it made movement in and out difficult."

The entrance was transformed enabling the taxi drivers to come in and out much more easily - to the benefit of all parties. "We then wrote to parents asking what they wanted most from the taxi drivers and they said punctuality, cheerfulness and a willingness to do that extra something which made life easier for them." Those taxi drivers who delivered children safety and on time with no adverse report from parents were given certificates - results were displayed on a noticeboard and in a newsletter.

The newsletter is an important vehicle for involving everyone. It contains articles on children's achievements, school activities and events, and the school's struggles to retain services; its circulation includes staff, teachers, pupils, local authority representatives, suppliers and many others.

That schools can learn from business models, Foxdenton has no doubt. But it is a two-way process. Mel Farrar quotes with pride the fact that TNT, the delivery express service, has said that their best idea for staff engagement was cribbed from Foxdenton school. "We asked each member of staff what they would do to improve the quality of education if they were given pound;100. It was hypothetical to start with but by the end of the end of that year we had fulfilled around 90 per cent of the ideas," he says. Some of these ideas would "have already been in the system", other ideas Mel Farrar gave staff the money to implement. "You have to trust staff to spend money to sort things out," he says, pointing out that in one hotel cleaners command pound;2,000 annually to spend on improvements they think are necessary.

Special schools and businesses, according to Foxdenton, do have a great deal to teach each other.

Foxdenton school and integrated nursery, Foxdenton Lane, Chadderton, Oldham. Tel: 0161 284 5335. Web: For information on how to enter for the European Quality Award visit www.efqm.orgawards2000.htm

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