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Hard-hatted advice

One's a school boss and the other runs an electricity company. But when they talk management, they each have lessons for the other, writes Anat Arkin

On the face of it, there is not much similarity between a big electricity distribution company and a 460-pupil school. But Nigel Giles, head of Chalkstone middle school in Haverhill, Suffolk, has found a surprising amount in common with Robert Kemp, maintenance manager for EDF Energy in the east of England. In their very different work environments, both face the problem of getting people to pay attention to safety. They also have similar concerns about managing staff performance.

"Obviously he is sorting out electricity distribution across the east of England and I'm teaching children maths and English," says Mr Giles.

"But the remarkable thing is that we can talk the same language when it comes to my role and his role."

He met Robert Kemp on Partners in Leadership, a programme that brings heads and business leaders together to share experiences and mentor each other.

Their relationship was supposed to last one year but, 18 months after their first meeting, the two men are still finding their discussions useful so they remain in regular contact.

Business in the Community, which runs the programme with the National College for School Leadership (NCSL), has matched more than 6,500 headteachers with business leaders from around 2,000 firms over the past nine years.

The focus has changed over that time. "Originally, it was very much about the business leaders helping heads," says Meg Maunder, assistant director of leadership programmes at the NCSL, "but it became apparent that business leaders learnt a lot as well, so we now describe it as a mutual partnership."

Partners meet six times a year. Heads keep a record of what they have learnt and its impact on their school. For some, it provides an opportunity to look at their role from a fresh perspective. Others, including Sir John Lewis, principal of Dixons city technology college, Bradford, have more specific aims.

A head for more than 20 years, Sir John wanted to hone the business skills he needed as a director of the college's two subsidiary companies: the Minerva Centre, which provides ICT training and services, and a software business called Interactive Learning. Shortly after linking up with a senior manager at the international finance company Provident Financial, Sir John was appointed project manager for the bid to convert Dixons into a city academy. "That was something I had never even remotely considered doing previously, and therefore it made the link even more advantageous and opportune," he says.

With Dixons due to become a city academy in September and a new strategic plan in place for Interactive Learning, this partnership has achieved its objectives and ended.

The programme is targeted very much at experienced heads. But with an ageing workforce threatening to make existing headteacher shortages worse, Business in the Community is looking at how to help schools develop their future leaders.

One possibility would be for it to work more closely with HTI, an educational charity that has been arranging industrial secondments for heads since 1986. HTI recently launched a new programme that turns the traditional secondment on its head by sending business people with specialist skills in marketing, IT and other management areas into schools.

It's called Take5 because the secondments usually last five days, and aims to help schools tackle specific projects such as drawing up a marketing plan.

That makes it an obvious next step , according to Nigel Purkis, head of business relations at HTI.

"Take5 engages different people from the company and different levels within the school," he says, "and goes beyond the peer- mentoring support that Partners in Leadership provides, towards much more specific, concrete support."

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