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Rebels not role models

Stephen Hastings reports on a new breed of head with a nose for business and a vision for improving schools, and, below, meets two of them

Entrepreneurs are City slickers, wheeler-dealers, millionaires - the Richard Bransons of this world, expanding empires and amassing fortunes - aren't they? They are not, one imagines, headteachers.

But a report published this month argues that the very best headteachers - the ones who transform the status of their schools - display the same personality traits as successful business entrepreneurs. The research brief for No Barriers, No Boundaries was simple: select 10 headteachers who had achieved "the unthinkable, the impossible or the uncomfortable". Then try to work out how they did it.

In some cases, the entrepreneurial spirit was obvious: one school raised pound;1 million a year from alternative sources and school-based business ventures. In others, a different kind of innovation was at work, pioneering a five-term year or providing postgraduate study opportunities for every member of staff.

But while the headteachers' achievements are diverse, the research, commissioned by Heads, Teachers and Industry (HTI), found that they shared several characteristics. So what do these "breakthrough heads" have that others don't?

Alan Roach, of Chalvedon school in Essex, and Preet Sahota of Birmingham's West Heath school (see below) typify the new breed of business-minded headteacher. "They aren't superheroes," says HTI's chief executive, Anne Evans. "They just have the right habits." In most cases, she says, the ideas came from someone else. But it was the headteacher who had the courage to put the idea into action, often in the face of opposition from parents, governors or the local authority.

"That's why we see these heads as entrepreneurs," says Russell Hobby of the Hay Group, which co-ordinated the research. "It's the willingness to take risks and back their judgment."

The difference, of course, is that business entrepreneurs put their cash on the line, while headteachers are gambling with their social capital - their hard-earned reputations, even their careers. "But true entrepreneurs aren't after the money," argues Mr Hobby. "They have a vision, a dream. Money is just a way of keeping score. Similarly, these headteachers aren't motivated solely by results or standards - they want to change communities."

But while the breakthrough heads may cherish a vision, they are not idle dreamers. The report suggests they share a ruthless streak, and have little fear of making enemies. Several of the heads recount bitter conflicts with their LEAs, while another tells how he battled with civil servants and MPs to change the status of his school and qualify for funding. Within school, the heads were all prepared to make themselves unpopular by confronting underperforming staff. But, perhaps more importantly, they are good at making friends.

"They build alliances," says Mr Hobby. "They manipulate the media and gain influence in the right places. They know who they can upset and who they need to stay in with."

Successful networking is time-consuming, of course, which perhaps explains the most surprising characteristic shared by the breakthrough heads: they all spend a lot of time out of school. "These heads tend to delegate much of the day-to-day running of their schools," says Mr Hobby. "But they create such a strong culture that their absence isn't really felt."

So could the report form the basis of a new style of leadership training? "Probably not," laughs Mr Hobby. He points out that the report's working title was Maverick. "This kind of leadership delivers the 'right' results but avoids conventional methods," he says. "These people aren't role models - they're rebels."

But it's true that headteachers have more opportunities to nurture their rebel spirit than in the past. Anne Evans believes HTI's work in organising business placements for school leaders will breed a new generation of breakthrough heads. "The report shows what can be achieved with a spirit of enterprise. These headteachers are no cleverer than the rest of us. They've just learned to look outwards."

No Barriers, No Boundaries, pound;12.99, is available from HTI, the Vanguard Centre, University of Warwick Science Park, Coventry, CV4 7EZ. Or contact Anne Evans, chief executive of HTI, on: 024 7641 0104; email: arranges more than 40 business secondments for heads and senior teachers each year. Schools receive a bursary to cover management responsibilities during the absence

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