Branching out

16th June 2000 at 01:00
A Powys headteacher has found solace at a local bank branch. Andrew Mourant reports

Meeting the bank manager can be an unnerving and expensive business. But not for headteacher Dilwyn Jones who, for the past two years, has been making a regular 30-mile trek from his school in Machynlleth, Powys, to the Newtown branch of HSBC. There, free of charge, he's been sharpening his management and leadership skills.

HSBC used to be known as Midland - "the listening bank" - but when he gets into Newtown, Jones has the undistracted ear of customer service manager Haf Leonard. And away from the clamour and myriad demands of 318 children, he is firmly off limits.

"No one disturbs me," he says. "I concentrate totally on the job in hand. I'm able to look at my school from outside."

Machynlleth County Primary has been linked with HSBC under the Partners in Leadership Scheme fostered by Business in the Community. The arrangement, originally intended to last for a year, has now run for two. "We get on well as people. I have learned a lot from Haf," he says.

While Jones has the usual battery of skills expected of a primary head, he nevertheless felt that there were things he could learn about the complexities of managing a bilingual school. There is an English and a Welsh stream, and more than half the children have Welsh as a first language.

"I was interested in how Haf dealt with staff, the structure and delegation of work. I wanted to know how much responsibility they had as a branch and how the expectations of the bank were transferred," he says.

Jones has found many similarities in staff training methods. At the moment, he is having to think about the sensitive handling of applications for the Government's forthcoming performance-related pay scheme.

"They have already gone through their process and I am being trained to deal wih that," he says.

Financial management is another complex area in which Mr Jones appreciates Leonard's experience. "In many ways, we are getting closer to being a business. Haf sat in when the auditors were here - I found that very useful." The distance between the school and Leonard's workplace makes casual drop-in calls impractical, so there needs to be a businesslike quality to their meetings, as well as a purposeful agenda.

Leonard has an empathy for school life - her father, now retired, was a head, her mother a teacher. "Compared with how things used to be, there has been a vast change - the amount of paperwork is phenomenal," she says.

"Finance is now the major issue. Dilwyn has to balance the books and try to run the school. It's good to understand what he has to do. I think I'd like to get more involved in future.

"We are both Welsh speakers, so we had something in common to start with. But it takes longer than a year to get to know each other. We did the hard work in the first 12 months. One of the most difficult things was making time to meet and sticking to it."

Leonard, a stickler for time management, helped make some subtle changes to ones's working practices. Finding the head bogged down with small tasks from the minute he walked into school, she suggested his secretary come in earlier.

In questioning Jones's use of time and working routines, she also came to re-examine her own methods. "I think Haf has been surprised by the range of interruptions I get," says Jones. "She has suggested that sometimes I should be unavailable and try not to be interrupted in the afternoon."

But it is always difficult to fend away small children. As a child approaches Jones bearing the gift of a picture of a tiger, he's inclined to favour an open door policy after all. "It's lovely. That's made my day," he says.

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