At the age of 54, teacher Richard Lloyd decided to change tracks for a year, swapping his inner-city school for a management job on the railways. In Railtrack's plush offices in Birmingham, his ability to juggle tasks is very much in demand. He is now involved in multi-million-pound projects, including the development of a new transport interchange and station for Wolverhampton. "I'm working on projects where you're talking about huge figures, and trying to move them forward and make them work," he says. "It's very challenging."
Mr Lloyd, who teaches at Park View school in Birmingham, took his secondment under the Heads, Teachers and Industry scheme (HTI), which finds placements in businesses and other organisations for headteachers and senior staff. He admits the timing couldn't have been worse - the week after he started last October, Railtrack went into administration. "I kept a low profile for a week, because everybody else was more concerned about their jobs than bothering about me," he says.
But it wasn't long before he was immersed in his new role, liaising between the company, local authorities and developers.
At school, Mr Lloyd had been in charge of day-to-day staff cover, vocational education, careers and industry-related projects. "I needed a break," he says. "It had been a difficult and challenging time for our school. We'd been in special measures and come out of it. We'd moved the school forward - from 8 per cent of pupils gaining five A*-Cs to 35 per cent in three to four years. Obviously, that's a lot of hard work - and stressful."
So what was it like going from a large inner-city comprehensive to a public company in crisis? He admits that apart from missing his students, and facing a steep learning curve, the transition has not been too difficult. "I was used to being busy," he points out. "I was used to flying by the seat of my pants on a daily basis, so it was nice to sit back and have time to reflect. In my first few weeks here I realised what a luxury it was to be able to sit back, think problems through and come up with solutions. It was refreshing.
"When I arrived here, I found we all had our own work spaces, and I thought, 'Golly, this is going to be different.' For a start, I was in front of a computer all the time, which I didn't tend to be at Park View. So you're thrown in at the deep end. The IT skills certainly have to be sharpened up immediately.
"The projects I'm involved in require a lot of careful planning; it's putting a deal together, it's trying to make something work, and making sure it works for the travelling public. And in a sense, you're trying to do the same in a school, putting a deal together for the children's sake so they benefit from a better quality of education. But the way this company operates has been difficult, particularly because we went into administration. And the management style is different.
"I was impressed by the quality of the people I was working with - their dedication to the job of making the railways work, despite the huge problems the industry was confronted with. I thought we had problems at Park View, but they pale into insignificance. You just have to look at what something like a temporary speed restriction costs the company on a daily basis - it's frightening."
Heads, Teachers and Industry was launched 16 years ago by a group of senior industrialists who wanted to develop headteachers' understanding of employment issues. Since then the scheme has found secondments for some 400 school staff. They range from just a few weeks for subject co-ordinators, to a whole term for aspiring heads, middle managers or department heads, or longer for senior staff and headteachers. Schools continue to pay secondees' salaries, and are reimbursed by the company or organisation concerned.
Anne Evans, HTI's chief executive, says the scheme brings benefits to all parties. "Secondees are using transferable skills; they're experiencing leadership and management in a culture that's non-educational, and they grow in confidence. The career path for many people has been school, university, school, but there's nothing like first-hand experience," she says. "Business is always amazed at educationists' multi-tasking abilities. And teachers are good at reading an audience - they do it intuitively."
The business world finds this a great asset when it uses secondees to make presentations, or to work in a training department. Mr Lloyd has also been talking to the human resources manager about how the company can better use the vocational skills taught in schools. "There are tremendous gains for the school when the secondee comes back, so it's win, win, win," says Anne Evans.
So what are the benefits to schools? Mr Lloyd says he has become more conscious of such problems as children trespassing on railway lines and vandalism, and the need to draw attention to these problems in school. "An area close to where I work is a railway crime hotspot, where a young person was killed last year and somebody else was badly injured," he says. "It shatters lives and costs the company millions. It's a huge issue."
Such secondments can lead to long-term relationships between schools and businesses. Rosemary Musker high school in Thetford, Norfolk, maintains contact with Baxter Healthcare, a manufacturer of medical products, four years after its deputy head did a secondment there. The firm has hosted a training day for the school's senior managers, and helped with mentoring and with numeracy training days for teachers.
Judy Mottram, deputy head of Chadsmead primary school in Lichfield, Staffordshire, joined Yell - formerly Yellow Pages - last year as part of a 10-day HTI pilot backed by the Department for Education and Skills. The aim of the pilot was to assess the benefits of HTI secondments to teachers'
professional development and to promote the importance of key skills in the workplace. Ms Mottram also involved her school's seven-year-olds, who visited the company and designed advertisements and covers for Yellow Pages. "The company took the children's designs and had them printed. Then someone from Yellow Pages had a day in school working with the children," she says. "It's been a good PR exercise. From the school's point of view, it helps make the curriculum relevant. All industry links do that - this is what happens in real life."
But isn't there a danger that those going on secondment will enjoy the move into industry so much that they end up staying? Few do, says Anne Evans. "This is about professional development; it's about outcomes for school improvement. If you're phoning us because you're looking to get out, this is not for you. Our interview structure tests those issues, and we reject a lot of people.
"We have a teacher recruitment crisis, and we are not taking people out of a profession that desperately needs them. This is about a refreshing experience, and going back in with renewed energy."
For further information visit www.hti.org.uk