A clear lesson that people come first;The Sweeney;School management

27th August 1999 at 01:00
In February I had some new windows installed. The product itself is robust and effective, but the follow-up service verges on the comical. Since our windows were installed, we have entertained a procession of managers and fixers, all driving shining vans bearing pictures of happy chappies fitting perfect windows. This image, with its implied promise of customer satisfaction, bears little resemblance to reality, as fundamental flaws remain.

The vocabulary of quality assurance has been imported into education from the business world. Assessment criteria, performance indicators, even the very phrase "quality assurance" have their roots in manufacturing and commerce.

Since the 1980s, the Thatcherite assumption that business invariably does things better has spread. It suggests that if we could only emulate commercial practices, we too could be good at things and rise above the common denominator of state-sponsored mediocrity. Successive governments have peddled the idea that the business world holds the key to education's problems. Our experience with the window company, and countless chronicles of consumer catastrophes, give the lie to such crude generalisations.

The past 20 years have seen the growth of a positive and constructive partnership between education and business. The concentration of companies in and around Edinburgh has been an enormous benefit to local schools. Holy Rood in particular has enjoyed the fruits of partnership with large concerns such as Royal Mail, Standard Life and Scottish Power, and a host of smaller enterprises. Their contributions, from work experience placements to rooms full of computers, are highly valued and frequently acknowledged.

Most would readily accept that quality in secondary education is a more elusive and less definable entity than the quality of their products. They also acknowledge the unpredictable effects on quality systems of 940 children.

The most important lesson we can derive from the business world is cultural rather than methodological. Companies have progressed from the deficit model of quality assurance, to a commitment to quality management through investing in people. Businesses have come to realise their most valuable and variable resources are human and that improvement will best be achieved through the personal and professional development of individuals.

A primitive concept of quality management rested on the belief that if you tested inputs often enough, you could guarantee output with zero defects. Business culture has progressed to emphasising the vital role of those who determine the inputs, and to investing heavily in their health, happiness and welfare.

A visit to the Scottish Power Learning Centre at Portobello reveals a panoply of learning opportunities open to employees, with computer hardware available for their use. The menu is not restricted to job-related training. Indeed, staff assure me that one of the most popular courses on offer is Spanish. Scottish Power's success at home and abroad is built on a recognition of the commitment and dedication of its workforce.

Similarly, Edinburgh-based Standard Life, the largest mutual life assurance company in Europe, sees the development of its staff as the key to success in an increasingly competitive business environment. The company has declared its intentions by naming a department "people development". It sees its commercial success as inextricably linked to the development of its staff. This policy of valuing and developing its people permeates every aspect of its operations. Standard Life also made a substantial investment in its future workforce by appointing David Dimmock and Alasdair Ferguson to spearhead the company's partnership with schools and colleges.

Many companies which are committed to quality would consider education's approach to quality management as old-fashioned. With its emphasis on defects and shortcomings, education is in danger of becoming marooned on an island from which the last inhabitant has just recently been rescued.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh.

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