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Boon of having a critical friend

School leaders and businesspeople have become more than partners through a scheme set up to spread good management practice, writes Raymond Ross

The restructuring of school management may be causing headaches that no pill can cure but at least there is a business education partnership strategy which seems to help clear any blurred vision.

The Partnership in Learning programme was set up by Scottish Business in the Community in 2000 to bring together business leaders and headteachers or depute heads for one-to-one structured exchanges of knowledge, experience and best practice. To date more than 100 partnerships have been formed with the aim of improving the senior management and leadership skills and raising standards in schools.

SBC is Scotland's leading organisation in the field of corporate social responsibility, which is regarded as a mark of sound business practice. It acts as a broker between business and communities, providing support and advice as well as channelling resources to deliver sustainable community investment.

One school which claims perceptible benefits from the Partnership in Learning programme is Prestwick Academy in South Ayrshire. Headteacher Colin Paterson, who has been partnered with Steve Gold, senior director of Oracle Scotland, for 14 months, says he acts as a kind of management consultant and "a critical friend".

"Oracle is the world's largest enterprise software company," says Mr Gold.

"It is absolutely committed to the ethos of corporate social responsibility. Giving back to the community is something we take very seriously.

"SBC facilitated our first meeting, gave us the rules of the game and left it to us to develop things," he says.

"We've had two tangible results so far. I helped Mr Paterson with the business plan for public private partnership funding for a new school. I acted as a sounding board and helped to put it in the right vein. The school is now at the planning stage and is due to open in 2007."

Mr Paterson says: "Mr Gold had previously been involved in estate management and he helped me structure the PPP application. I wouldn't say his input was crucial but it was very, very helpful."

"The second tangible result, I think," continues Mr Gold, "was helping to bring business rigour to the senior management team structure, allowing devolved responsibility and getting people to think long-term.

"We brought in a management consultant, Judy Christie, which Oracle Scotland paid for and who was well accepted by the senior management team," he says.

Bringing in the consultant without cost to the school was a boon, says Mr Paterson. "It would have taken a sizeable portion of our staff development budget which we couldn't afford.

"Ms Christie looked at management change generically and gave us a toolkit, telling us what to take into consideration and how to go about the process.

She didn't give us a model of management but a model of taking people through change.

"I believe it will benefit the whole school, though it's too early to assess any impact on pupil achievement."

The senior management team was very amenable to Ms Christie coming in, he says, and as she involved some principal teachers too, that helped to produce more of a team management spirit.

Future benefits of Prestwick Academy's Partnership in Learning programme are likely to include Oracle's advice on information and communications technology for the new school and help with developing its ethos alongside the school's Go For It positive behaviour strategy.

"We want to make the new school the focus for change," Mr Paterson says.

"In discussions with our associated primaries and professional colleagues, we have identified the basis for ethos as honesty, respect, equality, responsibility and compassion.

"We are looking at possible competitions, such as a design for a mural and posters, with prizes sponsored by Oracle.

"In business terms it's called rebranding the school, but the competitions will actually be based around examples and illustrations of these values," he explains.

Oracle will also provide prizes for positive behaviour competitions, he says.

Mr Paterson would recommend the Partnership in Learning scheme to any school, provided the partners are well suited. "The benefits for me include staff development, leadership and management. I already had my Scottish Qualification for Headship when I started as a new head here in August last year. Mr Gold added a practical approach I would have benefited from greatly as a depute head working towards the SQH.

"One of the great things is the informality of our meetings every couple of months. There are no minutes and no feedback to anyone else. I think that is the only way it could be, because it is a very personal dynamic."

Mr Gold also benefits from the partnership. "We all have personal development plans at Oracle and I'm specifically trying to develop management skills in coaching and mentoring," he says.

"I must stress it is very much a quid pro quo relationship. We give a lot to each other and I'm learning a lot about educational management and gaining an understanding and empathy I would otherwise not achieve."

The businessman and the headteacher intend to keep their partnered relationship going for as long as they find it beneficial.

"Put it this way," says Mr Paterson, "if we weren't gaining from it, we'd have stopped long before now."

Scottish Business in the Community, tel 0131 442 2020

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