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'Our customers, our pupils'

Geraldine Keegan is using business methods to run her school. Ian Nash reports.

Clothing manufacturers Desmond and Sons has shaped a bill of rights for its staff and customers using the parents' charter from the local secondary school. For headteacher Geraldine Keegan it was the cherry on the cake after five years' effort to turn around the school using business management methods.

She has steeped her staff in the jargon of the outside world - Total Quality Management, Investors in People and the European Foundation Quality Model. But the plethora of management titles that have contributed more than any other area to the acronym jungle is not the point.

"It is about developing people to full potential to provide the best possible service for our customers - the pupils," she says. "Industry offers extremely useful benchmarks and we should not be afraid to use them."

It is a far cry from her point of view before doing a one-year placement with the Heads and Teachers Initiative, set up with government backing in 1986 to give managers in education an understanding of the workplace culture.

St Mary's is a school - all 1,000 girls are in the lower 65 per cent of the ability range - in the heart of strife-riven Londonderry. The range of changes Geraldine Keegan brought back from her secondment to Northern Ireland Electricity has resulted in the school winning 11 national awards for education and training. She was recently awarded the OBE for her services to education and she becomes pro-vice chancellor of the University of Ulster this autumn.

But these are minor considerations, she says, compared with the improvements in academic performance, pupil attendance, stay-on rates, community involvement and numbers of parents opting to sent their children to St Mary's (see graph above). "The results have been quite startling," she says. " It has been incredible." St Mary's was the first school in Northern Ireland to win the European Award for Business Excellence, arousing the interest of local industry.

Desmond and Sons, the 3,000-employee supplier to Marks and Spencer, provides a range of quality consultants to the school. Through them, the St Mary's parents' charter was spotted as a model for the company to design a charter of rights and responsibilities for its employees.

A range of local companies are now supporting the school with modules for General National Vocational Qualifications. It will be the first girls' school there to introduce GNVQ in manufacturing. People are coming in from business and the community to help with basic skills training for subjects across the curriculum.

"They give invaluable help," she says. "I say to others, do not be afraid to involve industry in what you are doing. There are many out there eager to get involved, but we still have a long way to go."

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