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Cheerleader for the pinstripes;Endpiece;Interview;Julia Cleverdon

Julia Cleverdon's down-to-earth approach is building bridges between schools and business. She talks to Heather Neill

Julia Cleverdon remembers Camden Girls' School motto with pride: "'Onward and upward'; the bus conductor used to quote it and say 'We don't want any girls on the bottom deck.' I thought that was excellent advice."

We met, not on a north London bus, but in the standard class of an early-morning train from Euston to Sandwell and Dudley in the West Midlands. As executive director of Business in the Community, Julia Cleverdon doesn't waste time; she could fit in an interview on the way to one of her "Seeing is Believing" sessions. These are the Prince of Wales's idea, as is the concept of Business in the Community: "He says they have to see for themselves".

Part of the Prince's Trust, Business in the Community works with firms to support economic and social regeneration. Executives of local companies and sometimes representatives of other groups, such as the police, are invited by the Prince to spend half a day in a community, perhaps on a housing estate, probably including a school. The "pinstripes" - Cleverdon's short-hand for business leaders - are often amazed when tempted out of their comfortable "sealed box" and this has proved a useful route to various initiatives. Eleven hundred pinstripes have taken part so far, 90 per cent of them fulfilling the requirement to report on their experience.

Schools are invited to provide a wish list, to avoid "the zoo effect" of outsiders coming in to watch people going about their daily duties. Such simple things as getting a roof repaired might be done at next to no cost by a local company. A firm might dispense with mini-buses in better condition than the school's simply because it is policy to change vehicles every couple of years; things can be "thrown away" in the right direction.

Cleverdon's career and down-to-earth openness fit her exactly for the job. After reading history at Cambridge, she became a junior ("very junior, no-one was more junior except the office cat") industrial relations officer in British Leyland's Body and Assembly Plant. "There were 28,000 on site and I was dealing with 29 unions - completely irrelevant experience now of course." Then, after a spell in the communications department of the Industrial Society, she went to South Africa in 1974 to help Anglo-American Mining set up trade unions for their black workers. Some years later she married the head of the Industrial Society, John Garnett, who died 18 months ago. She has two children aged 13 and 17.

Further work with the society led to an extension of her interest in inner city development, the role of women in industry, and leadership in education. She joined the Curriculum Council during Keith Joseph's ministry and in 1985 instituted courses for deputy heads with David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. "At that time, incredibly, the Department of Education and Science said there was no such thing as leadership in education."

"Partners in Leadership" , which developed from "Seeing is Believing", is a particularly successful strand in her work. There are so many possibilities - "initiativitis" as Cleverdon puts it (business and education developments have "more pilots than Gatwick", she says) - that BITC has focused on three priorities: to help raise basic skills in primary schools, to tackle underachievement by providing role models for young people at risk of dropping out and to support leadership in education.

I had already seen her in action, the one-liners for which she is famous sprinkling her conversation, at Manchester's Ducie High School in Manchester. She was leading a "Partners in Leadership" presentation by headteachers and business leaders for the Prince of Wales, who was visiting the school that day. This was the first time heads from all over the country involved in the scheme had met each other and a room-full of business luminaries. It was partly about breaking down stereotypes says Cleverdon, moving among the school chairs like a charismatic teacher: "Not everyone in business is driven by the mating-call of the Porsche". The teachers said the contact strengthened their leadership position; the business people said they'd learned humility.

The scheme's title is deliberate, indicating an equal exchange rather than mentoring by one group of another. Eight hundred companies are already involved; there will be 3000 by June next year. "It is clear that it is good for business. Education is a priority and it is a way of being involved with the system. Some companies, such as the Prudential and Halifax have made it part of their senior management development programme."

The first stage, three years ago, began when Michael Fowle of KPMG met a dynamic primary head in Southwark, Sylvia Morris, on a "Seeing is Believing" visit. She said it was helpful to have a sounding-board outside education; he was intrigued by the breadth of her role. Thirty senior people then embarked on a pilot in different primary schools and, after a year, 98 per cent wanted the relationship to continue.

Now, if a head wishes to take part, BITC searches for suitable business partners. "If they are 'matched'", says Cleverdon, they commit to meeting for at least two hours every half term; of course many do so more often and they frequently become mates".

She tells how one head, Penny Greenhalgh from Grasmere Primary in Hackney, twinned with a leading city firm, Lazard Brothers, "held the BITC membership in the palm of her hand" when she spoke at the AGM. "She pointed out that her annual budget for books, then pound;2000, was probably less than they spent on flowers for their reception area." Penny Greenhalgh found her contact with the firm gave her space to think, helping her, for example, to improve the way she presented the school's OFSTED report to parents. Her partner was astonished at the range of her responsibilities, horrified that her new graduate teachers were paid less than his lowliest secretary.

As we near Birmingham, Cleverdon pays tribute to Prince Charles. "He's such an ideas person", she says, indicating a handwritten letter many pages long from St James' Palace, "but he never imposes".

Quick-minded, funny, quite without grand airs, Cleverdon has become a vital link between schools, business and royalty. And her work is winning praise. "The best thing," as someone said at Ducie School, "is that it makes everyone evangelistic - education and business working together to make changes for the better."

Julia Cleverdon remembers Camden Girls' School motto with pride: " 'Onward and upward'; the bus conductor used to quote it and say, 'We don't want any girls on the bottom deck'. I thought that was excellent advice."

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