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It works both ways

Mentoring schemes for heads can benefit the mentor too, finds Mark Whitehead

Headteachers can learn from industry, the Government's new training programme for heads in service assumes. But schools can also prove an eye-opener for management consultants who come in, supposedly to show heads how it is done.

It may be only a short hop across London from King's Cross to the City. But to Jane Fulford, head of Winton primary school in one of the quieter backstreets of the area, it might have been a million miles.

As a veteran of an ambitious scheme to bring local people in to help with the children's reading, she was used to outsiders. But the prospect of a top executive from a leading City firm arriving to discuss how she ran her school was somewhat daunting.

"I was afraid he would think it was very small fry and a waste of his time," she says, recalling the first visit two years ago by Jude Chin, a partner with management consultants KPMG. "But I was frustrated by the constant barrage of criticism from the media and the Government towards schools like ours. I loved my job, but I was seriously thinking of leaving teaching altogether."

For Jane, the headteacher mentoring scheme - launched in 1995 by Business in the Community and KPMG at 15 London schools and, with enthusiastic government backing now planned to expand to 5,000 schools in the next three years - was a lifeline.

Her school was not doing badly. But like many heads, Jane had no idea whether she was carrying out her role in the most effective way. She speaks of feeling isolated and lacking confidence. And she faced a daily struggle deciding how best to allocate the school's dwindling resources.

Jude, on the other hand, was well established in a successful career. The problems of a small primary school in King's Cross were a long way from his mind. But that, for him, was the whole point of the scheme. "I wanted to improve my knowledge of what education was all about," he says. "I had no idea what someone like Jane had to do. And there was the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile. There was a kind of moral feeling that business should be making a contribution to the community."

Under the mentoring scheme, the headteacher and the business person meet far at least two hours every month. For Jane, an immediate problem was the amount of time she was spending on administration. She did not feel justified in taking money out of the school fund to pay for help.

"I was trying to do everything myself," she says. "But Jude said that in business you have to make sure you have the right support or you can't do your own job properly." Soon, a part-time administrator was appointed.

Then there was the staff appraisal which was taking an enormous amount of time and was not particularly effective. The two decided to streamline the whole exercise and make it broader in scope.

They also looked at the performance league tables which showed Winton in a poor light and were demoralising the children and staff. Between them they worked out a valued-added table for schools in the area and found that, given the problems the school faced, it was actually one of the best in the area. All these measures, Jane says, led to immediate improvements in the school's performance.

Next on the list for action is a radical examination of the school's finances.

Earlier this year, a very positive OFSTED report said Winton was a stimulating place which children enjoyed going to and where they responded well to their lessons. At least 95 per cent of lessons were satisfactory or better. It led to the Evening Standard devoting a page to "The school that defied the inner-city odds." This year 74 per cent of the school's 11-year-olds reached level 4 in English and maths, well above the national average and not far short of the targets the Government wants to achieve nationally by the year 2002.

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