Pat McCarthy is one of the first arrivals at BT's headquarters in the City of London each morning. He's not the cleaner, and he's not a middle-aged executive in a suit - he's a headteacher.
On a year's secondment from Eaglesfield School in the London borough of Greenwich, Mr McCarthy is leading a research project into information technology across the curriculum. He is hard at work by 7.30am most days, sticking to the familiar schoolday routine. "Old habits die hard," he says. "I even take sandwiches so that I can work through my lunchbreak."
If BT has gained a reliable workhorse, then Mr McCarthy's job swap is giving him a valuable insight into the business world. The new national professional qualification for headteachers (NPQH) demands that heads draw on best practice both inside and outside education, and Mr McCarthy is at BT to hone his management skills. Work-placement is now an important part of a headteacher's career development.
The placement was organised by Heads and Teachers into Industry (HTI), a charity set up in 1986 by a group of major companies such as Reckitt and Colman, Northern Foods and Rowntree with the aim of bringing schools and business closer together. Anne Evans, HTI chief executive, says: "An industrial placement helps heads focus on leadership and management. It can give them the confidence and help prepare them for a move on to bigger or more difficult schools. Even if they are not considering a career move it can give them experience and ideas they can transfer back to their schools."
Pat McCarthy values the change of environment and the change of pace. "For me it's an opportunity to do something without the everyday knee-jerk crisis response. Through working on this project I am able to brush up on my IT skills and I am able to network - I meet all sorts of people who have an interest in education, from civil servants and academics to the unions and teaching and curriculum bodies."
Placements are not a soft option, however. Most heads are recruited to help develop human resources policy, or management strategy. Companies offering placements have a specific project in mind. Anne Evans says: "Companies are extremely choosy about who they select, but many are happy to consider a headteacher rather than outsourcing to a consultant. Heads have enthusiasm, good interpersonal skills, they can project-manage and get the job done. Heads provide a fresh pair of eyes - they can ask the obvious questions that people within an organisation dare not."
Mr McCarthy is not considering moving on to another headship, so the management skills he is acquiring will feed back into the way he runs his current school. One awkwardly named technique he hopes to apply at Eaglesfield is "incentivisation". He explains: "One of the things I've learnt is that you can influence and motivate middle management. In school you don't have room to reward people with bonuses, but you can motivate people in other ways through giving them responsibility or training."
McCarthy's absence from school is providing the very rewards and motivation he describes. "The governors have agreed to pay my salary, but BT is compensating the school for my absence - their money has allowed me to create acting posts within the school. It's giving junior and middle managers the experience which could enable them to go for deputy headships in other schools."
But the BT experience provides a salutary lesson. Private-sector incentivisation is driven by bonuses in cash or shares; last year middle managers at BT received bonuses from 5 per cent of their basic salary up to 10 per cent or more for the top 2 per cent of high-flyers. McCarthy comments: "The people I work with are young graduates in their twenties on salaries of Pounds 30,000, which you'd have to be a head of department or the head of a large primary school to earn."
Although Mr McCarthy is not contemplating applying for another headship, his growing expertise in project-managing IT research could stand him in good stead for a move out of teaching and into inspection. "I'd want to take the training offered by the Office for Standards in Education which, combined with the management experience, would give me a good portfolio of skills," he says.
And in a year's time? He smiles: "I'll be back at my office at Eaglesfield managing 76 staff and a budget of Pounds 3.2 million."
This academic year Heads and Teachers into Industry has found one-year placements for 15 heads and deputies. HTI helps companies draw up a specification of the individual they want to employ on a temporary basis. It then advertises within the education press and assists with the shortlisting of applicants.
Among the companies offering placements this year are Bass, Glaxo Wellcome, South West Water, Smith and Nephew, Lloyds TSB and the Rover Group. At Lloyds TSB one head is working on a competence framework to help the human resources department with staff restructuring. At Smith and Nephew another head is involved with a management-training programme. Lesley Allen, HTI marketing consultant, says: "Helping a company manage change enables heads to develop a vision and a strategy for their school."
Heads and Teachers into Industry, Management Training Centre, Radcliffe House, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL. Tel: 01203 5243312