In the company of strangers

Gerald Haigh

Nick Nelson gave up the executive life four years ago. Now he heads a large comprehensive. Gerald Haigh reports.

Nick Nelson has be-come the head of Queens' School, a 1,200 pupil comprehensive in Bushey, Hertfordshire, having started at the school as a newly-qualified teacher just three years ago, after a long and successful business career. Appointments of this kind are rare, and progress at Queens' will presumably be watched with some interest over the next few years.

As management skills become more and more relevant to the job of school leadership, other governing bodies, wanting to see their schools differently led, may well decide to watch out for senior managers changing course. Nick Nelson himself believes that education is "much more part of the rest of life than it used to be - the notion of accountability is much stronger for example."

All through the Seventies and Eighties, Mr Nelson was steadily climbing up the ladder of business management - first with the air cargo section of British Airways, then as managing director of the parcel delivery firm DHL and, finally, as a member of the executive board of the Post Office, where he ran the parcels business with a staff of 12,000.

Then, in 1991, he left it all - the company car, the key to the executive washroom - to become a teacher. After a year on the PGCE course at Reading University he went to Queens' School in 1995 to teach history, politics and business studies. Now he has succeeded Mary Marsh who moved on to Holland Park at Easter.

It is clearly a bold appointment by the Queens' School governors. "It was quite a shock to the system," says Paul Tozer, chair of governors. There was a strong field, including some experienced heads. But in the end it was Nick Nelson's management track record that carried the day.

"Either we took on an educational expert who would need to pick up on the managerial side of a GM school, or we appointed a first-class proven manager who would have to extend his knowledge of education - and when you look at the work of a GM head, management is by far the greater part.

Mr Tozer believes Mr Nelson has other important qualities too. "There is his desire to give something to children - that's why he came into education. And then when you meet him he has that quality that says this is a person of authority."

The governors, mindful of their desire to find a good manager, would have been willing to make an appointment straight from industry and then worked on the problems this might have caused. Nick Nelson, however, has come in as a classroom teacher with no immediate thoughts of quick advancement.

All the same, as Nick Nelson acknowledges, "there are obvious risks, and I have to understand that they are there and bear them in mind for the future. "

One difficulty, for example, is that although he has a wealth of management expertise, there are bound to be areas where his lack of school experience may be visible to others. "They might say 'This chap's nearly 50. We can't teach him to suck eggs, but on the other hand he doesn't know how to suck eggs'!"

However, he is a great believer in learning from colleagues. "I'm surrounded by people who'll fill those gaps in pretty quickly. The challenge for me is to make sure they do it, and don't let me fall into holes."

And in pursuit of further egg-sucking lessons, he spent a lot of time last term visiting other schools. "I think this is probably a form of training which the profession isn't too good at - learning from those who do the job best. "

But, I wondered, will the day-to-day job at Queens' be at all recognisable in terms of what he was doing before as a manager? "Yes - in the sense that in any endeavour where you have a group of people and you are trying to get them to achieve, then it's about management systems and processes and styles."

The biggest difference, he feels, is that while a business manager improves quality by finding the best way and standardising on it, teaching is a more idiosyncratic business. "There are so many ways to be a good teacher - differences of style and personality. We have to be careful of imposing the kind of standardisation that might work in a commercial environment."

It was this freedom to carve out a personal style that made teaching attractive to him in the first place. "What I was looking for was the kind of independence that enabled you to come home and say 'I had a bad day and it was because I screwed up'. In business you can always find a scapegoat."

It seems surprising that someone coming from a senior executive position should find more freedom in classroom teaching, and yet Nick Nelson sees it very much in these terms. "Not many teachers understand that even today, with all the pressures, they have a lot of freedom in what they can do and how they do it. I find that freedom exhilarating, and there are not many jobs where you get it, even in the kind of lofty position I had."

Headship has arrived quickly, the opportunity having been opened up by the departure of Mary Marsh - he had no thought of applying for headships elsewhere, and when he came into teaching he was not at all certain of being able to make the leap.

"In all walks of life we are concerned about ageism, and I was in my forties when I started."

You get the feeling, though, that he would not have felt dissatisfied by a classroom career. His move into school always, he points out, supported by his family - was driven by a search for greater personal fulfilment, and for something more interesting. "And I can't tell you how much that has come true. Parts of the work are grinding - when there are piles of marking for example - but you're never bored. It's a stimulating challenge." So is Queens' School going to be change?

"It's bound to be different. But it's a good school, with good teachers and good students, and it's going from strength to strength."

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