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Lessons from a telecomgiant

The boss of the Scottish Qualifications Authority talks about one of the most formative experiences in his career. David Scott meets Anton Colella

As a depute headteacher, Anton Colella was among the first candidates studying for the new Scottish headship qualification, when he was offered the chance of a week's work placement at Motorola in East Kilbride.

It was to prove "probably the single biggest formative experience for me in my life as a teacher up to that point". It helped lay the foundation for the management and people skills required for his demanding post today as chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

The placement had been arranged by a senior member of staff at Motorola, who was also a friend. "He was responsible for a large section of the organisation which covered marketing, sales, operations, design and development," Mr Colella recalls, "and, throughout the week, he arranged for me to get exposure to all these different strands of the organisation and how to understand the synergies, and maximise the synergies, between them."

During those seven days, he was exposed to new ideas and new ways of working that "challenged the underlying assumptions I always had about how to manage people and how to manage change - how to innovate, lines of responsibility, hierarchies of authority," he says.

"It challenged them all, because the school environment is traditionally conservative and, once it's fixed, it tends to stay in place for all time.

This challenged me to new ways of doing things. I was very struck by the high levels of accountability that existed, but not in a repressive way."

Mr Colella's depute headship was at St Margaret Mary's Secondary in Glasgow. He is a second generation Italian, whose family had come to Scotland in the 1950s. Brought up in the East End of Glasgow, the young Anton was the first member of his family to go to university (Stirling) and the first to gain any academic qualifications (a BA Hons in religious studies and a Dip Ed).

His early experience as a pupil had a profound effect on his way of thinking. "I do have a lingering impression of very good teachers who broadened the mind, who didn't just teach the subject, who just opened the eyes to the potential all of us had to be successful and to have a fulfilling time."

He started his teaching career at Holyrood Secondary in Glasgow. Moving to St Columba's, Gourock, he became a principal teacher while still in his mid-20s. That experience was also to influence his later management skills.

"The interesting thing about being a teacher of RE is that you didn't always have your own department. At a denominational school, your department was usually most of the staff, which tended to expose you to the politics of school life and how to support teachers, including those who weren't always willing RE teachers, and ensure there was a certain consistency across the school."

Mr Colella then moved back to Holyrood Secondary as principal teacher in a larger department, which had four full-time RE teachers. He was promoted to the post of assistant head before moving to St Margaret Mary's Secondary.

Then came the work placement.

He found Motorola's accountability and management were used not to regulate but to innovate. There was a high level of investment in the potential of every member of staff; each was valued as an asset.

The performance management systems were very impressive. There was great emphasis on how well staff were engaging with customers and stakeholders.

As he points out, traditional hierarchical models were "blown away".

Junior members of staff were put in situations where they could hold more senior managers to account. People were given a real sense of self-belief.

"I didn't see anybody browbeaten or fearful. The climate there was one where people were being allowed to develop and to flourish."

Motorola's biggest asset was clearly its people, Mr Colella says.

So, is it possible to transfer the management techniques of private industry to the classroom?

"One of the challenges of the new management structures in schools, where there is flatter management, is how to get all these staff to the level of attention required for them to flourish.

"And that's the challenge for headteachers. It's the challenge for local authorities, because the future success of Scottish education rests in the people standing at the front of the classrooms and those that are managing and supporting them in that process."

In 2001, Mr Colella was seconded to the Scottish Qualifications Authority to be the voice of the school sector within the organisation, which was trying to recover from the unprecedented exams crisis of the previous year.

Later in 2001, he resigned from St Margaret Mary's Secondary to take up the full-time role of director of qualifications at the SQA. After becoming acting chief executive, following the resignation of David Fraser, he was appointed to the permanent role in December 2003.

His insight into management at Motorola, especially its emphasis on the value of people, has been of immense benefit to Mr Colella in his task of turning around the SQA and in helping what had been a beleaguered staff regain confidence in themselves and in the organisation.

"I now have a very firm belief, in my role at the SQA, that it is the people who work there, as much as the people in the school, who are critical to the organisation's or a school's success."

He is convinced that, in the interests of professional development, more teachers should seek experiences in the private sector and that the post-McCrone agreement, providing greater scope for CPD, gives that opportunity.

"It's something teachers can organise themselves and I think there are ways we can support that," Mr Colella says.

He believes teachers would benefit greatly from exposure to the private sector management and that, equally, schools should in no way be fearful of bringing business leaders in to schools to attend staff development events or meetings.

"It's all about sharing experiences," he says.

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