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Head who knows the business

It's official: consultants say companies that work with education get just as many benefits as the schools they help. John May (right) explains why to Simon Midgely

Bill Gates may be a dab hand at running the computer giant Microsoft, but he would probably crack under the strain of being a school head.

Recent research by management consultants Hay McBer showed that headteachers use a wider range of leadership styles than most chief executives in business. The 200 heads observed by Hay McBer also had a bigger impact on staff performance than 200 leaders in industry.

So Business in the Community, which represents 650 firms keen to forge links with schools, has tapped into a rich seam with its year-long programme of matching headteachers with local business leaders to develop leadership skills. The programme, known as Partners in Leadership, has been running for two and a half years and so far 3,200 headteachers have been matched.

John May, education director for BITC, was not surprised at the findings. "A head is a human resources director, finance director, marketing director and managing director of the school," he says.

"Headteachers have to deal day-to-day with a whole range of issues which senior executives in companies don't," he says. "Senior executives are amazed at the way headteachers juggle different priorities. And they learn a great deal from that."

Firms are realising that if they want a stake in young people's future, they need to play a strategic role in shaping the destiny of tomorrow's workers. This is a view May has held since his own involvement as a headteacher in school-industry links.

"I was a primary head and at the time my school was looking to win Investors in People status," he says. "I went through this partnership programme, paired with a business leader in my local community. It turned out that his company was also looking for IIP status. We worked through the criteria and learned from each other. It was absolutely terrific."

Since taking over as education director, May has identified four main areas in which business support can make a difference. He believes that it is about more than just shelling out money for resources.

First comes support of basic skills, especially in primary schools but increasingly in secondary as well. Local firms can do a lot to support pupils in their transition, he says.

Second, businesses ealise that employees get enormous satisfaction from helping young people with reading. Such volunteers return to work full of enthusiasm and commitment, he explains.

The third area is employability. "For too long schools have tried to protect themselves from business," he says. "Business and schools ought to be working together, making sure that young people are properly prepared for employment or self-employment.

"I do not subscribe to the view that the only role of education is to prepare young people for the world of work," he says.

So BITC works with companies to help teachers to keep up to date with the world of work, especially as so many teachers have little experience of work outside school.

The organisation also supports teacher placements and tries to ensure that work experience for young people is effective andrelevant.

The fourth key area is the leadership and management of schools. The Hay McBer research was not all on the side of teachers; it also showed that compared with industrialists, heads were too authoritarian and less willing to reward for effort.

Government-funded research last year also showed how workers benefit from work in schools - they develop new skills, become more innovative, improve problem-solving and communication skills as well as interview techniques and teamwork skills.

Most of all, May says, a company that links up with a school shows that it is a learning organisation and is committed to development. Pupils and teachers often devise new products and improved business processes, for example.

Firms also improve their reputation and gain from better staff recruitment and retention by linking with local schools. The image of the company as a caring member of the community generates goodwill, customer loyalty and access to local networks.

May insists, though, that there is much to be done.

"I want to take the involvement of business in education to a new stage, where there is an understanding. That involves talking to each other and involves pupils in activities that are firmly placed in the real world," he says.

"The more contact teachers have with the world their young people are being prepared for, the more relevant the education provided will be.

"We need a transparent relationship between businesses and schools - where both are clear about the benefits that each can bring to the table."

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