A head for business

11th September 2009 at 01:00
David Triggs has made a lucrative trade of rescuing failing schools - and not just one at a time

David Triggs chooses to meet in one of the London offices of the Institute of Directors. This entrepreneurial head who set up his own business nearly a decade ago looks comfortable among the pinstriped City types, intent behind their laptops.

Most heads speak the language of "value-added" and "self-evaluation", but Triggs talks - fast - about concepts such as due diligence and change management, terms more likely to crop up in the boardroom than the staffroom.

The principal of Greensward Academy in Hockley, Essex, says that he now spends little time there because of his involvement with other schools. He has helped to turn round nine, either as executive head or through consultancy - the word he uses is "intervention". His latest job is as chief executive officer of the Academies Enterprise Trust set up in September 2008 to run three academies in Essex. A fourth in Clacton-on-Sea is due to open this autumn. He is one of a new breed of executive heads whose success allows them to earn money for their schools and themselves from school improvement.

The Triggs philosophy is simple. Rescuing weak schools is expensive and the Government and local authorities should pay handsomely for the services of heads like himself who are good at it. He will not reveal what he earns except that it is less than the pound;200,000 that Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, would like to pay superheads. But he says he is "amply rewarded".

Mr Triggs, who is 57, was born in Lancashire and grew up in Colwyn Bay, North Wales. His father died when he was eight. He had no insurance and left his wife with a mortgage to pay off and four children to bring up. "In 1954 we had a firm's car and a big house and then suddenly we were working class."

He remembers members of the local church leaving food parcels on the doorstep. His mother worked day and night to keep the family together. Her sons also worked. "I did milk rounds," says Mr Triggs. "I was always working." He thinks his childhood may help to explain what drives him. "When you've been poor, you don't want to go back again."

But he never expected teaching to give him the chance to show his business acumen. "I was going to be a mechanic. That was the family tradition. My mother thought the best thing that you could do was to have a trade. I was the first member of my family to go into a profession, the first to stay on in the sixth form." He was an enthusiastic sportsman and his PE teacher persuaded him to go on to teacher training and become a PE teacher.

He loved teaching and talks emotionally of the satisfaction of watching some of the more difficult pupils at Unity City Academy in Middlesbrough, one of his "interventions", succeed. Turning round Unity, where he is still CEO, has been one of the hardest tasks he's taken on. "There are a lot of challenging children who would probably be excluded from some schools. We have set up a centre that enables them to stay in school. I'm very proud to be involved. I would go whether they paid me or not."

It's a side to Triggs that his detractors might find hard to recognise. Alan Parker, former president of the Society of Chief Education Officers, took him to task in the pages of The TES for his attack on local authorities. "Offering some credible alternative might prevent him coming across as quite so much of an egoist." "I've never really taken to him. Too full of himself," says a fellow head. Local authorities admire his success but say that he drives a hard financial bargain.

Part of the problem may be that he talks a different language from most educationists, sprinkling his conversation with phrases such as "world- class learning", the late Professor Ted Wragg's bete-noire.

But he is unrepentant. When a teacher at a failing school challenged him recently about the use of the phrase, he shot back the question: "Should I say that you want this school to be a bit better than average?"

He knows what his critics say and prefaces some of his comments with: "This may sound arrogant but . ". His reticence about his income is prompted partly by the knowledge that education's culture is still wary of entrepreneurial, money-making heads. But he tells the story of his company briefly and matter-of-factly. He set up ESI, his school improvement company, in agreement with his governors at Greensward after he reached the top of the headteacher scale. It was part of his remuneration package.

"I started doing a lot of speeches and the cheques kept arriving. I wanted to be completely transparent and make sure that I paid my taxes effectively."

The money he makes has been divided between himself and the school. For the past five years he has paid back more than his salary every year. The most he has made personally in a single year is pound;50,000.

"The model was based on doctors who are GPs in the morning and do private work in the afternoon. Nobody thinks twice about that and I don't think that there is anything wrong with it for a head. I'd say to other heads, if you are going to do it, do it with the governors' agreement and be absolutely transparent about it."

e is closing ESI this year because he no longer has time for it. He is now an established consultant (charging pound;850 a day) and the Magellan school improvement programme that he devised in 2000 has been used successfully in failing schools.

"A model was needed for school interventions because heads tend to be idiosyncratic when they improve schools. What do you say on Monday morning, when you walk into a school that is in trouble, about winning hearts and minds? There's no point in reinventing the wheel. Magellan helps you through the due diligence and the development of the leadership team."

An intervention using Magellan might be a two-year contract for two days a week and be worth pound;250,000. The money is spent on bringing in all the people the school needs. His team asks all staff what is good about the school, what needs to be improved and how they want the children to behave.

Has he had any failures? He had to pull out of one school before he had finished. "If we go into a failing school we usually find it overrun by advisers. We always say everybody has to get out. In this case the local authority wasn't prepared to do that. They had 42 inspectors and advisers in there and they wouldn't pull them out, so we decided not to go on."

He wouldn't, he says, claim all the credit for turning round the schools. Take the Greig City Academy in the London borough of Haringey, for instance. "It recently got good with outstanding features. We set it in the right direction but the leadership team have done a fantastic job."

He thinks the Government should introduce a new pay scale above the present headteacher scale to cater for heads like himself who are engaged with several schools.

He has no doubt that the extra money is deserved. "I work very hard and I can be away from home for four nights a week."

Then there is the risk-taking. He believes in risk and that's why he isn't critical of the banks' role in the credit crunch. "Heads take personal risks. We are putting our reputations at risk. If you fail once, do they come back for a second bite? Heads take risks in testing and piloting things. They don't just make money: they make some kind of contribution towards transforming education. That might sound extremely arrogant. It's not intended to. We need to run education as a business. Headship is entrepreneurial."

He fits it all in, he says, because he is an insomniac and a workaholic. He does go on holiday: his wife decides the place, books the tickets and tells him to turn up at the airport: St Lucia, Thailand, Cyprus. He takes leadership books, not novels, and makes notes from them. He checks his emails on his BlackBerry every evening and responds immediately if necessary.

Does he have any regrets? "I am a straightforward guy. I am very happy with my life."

This summer he is spending a week on a programme at Cranfield University with leading CEOs. Would he ever leave education to take his business acumen elsewhere? "I would love someone to say: `Mr T, you think you are so clever - come and run this company that has nothing to do with education.' But I'm 57, so it may be a bit late for that."


  • Current roles: Principal, Greensward Academy, Essex; CEO, Academies Enterprise Trust; CEO, Unity City Academy, Middlesbrough
  • 2007-08: CEO, John Bramston School, Witham, Essex
  • 2004-05: CEO, Thamesbridge College, Reading
  • 2003-04: CEO, Greig City Academy, Haringey
  • 2003: CEO, Halyard High School, Luton
  • 2001-03: Executive principal, James Hornsby High School, Basildon.

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