Overworked and under stress, many headteachers might find a year off an appealing notion. Thanks to the Heads, Teachers and Industry (HTI) initiative, dozens of school principals are finding that a change can be as good as a rest. They take a 12-month placement in business and return to school rejuvenated and ready to put into practice ideas gleaned from commerce.
The scheme began 10 years ago as a partnership between Warwick University,Humberside local education authority and local businesses. Since then, some 130 senior teachers have been seconded to large companies across the country.
The company pays for the cost of the teacher's replacement while on work experience; and the teacher attends a short course at the University of Warwick that aims to encourage a more businesslike approach to school management.
"HTI started because some major industrialists felt that senior educationalists needed a better understanding of the workplace they were educating people for," explains Anne Evans, the new director of Heads, Teachers and Industry. "The idea was that they could go back and influence the curriculum." Ironically, that was in the same year as the Government announced the introduction of the national curriculum.
Anne Evans is a graduate of the scheme and a former deputy headteacher. She spent a year in the human resources and training department of Ernst and Young, a management consultancy firm. "During that time I recognised that there were many strategic planning techniques being used in business which were very appropriate in helping senior educationalists move their schools forward."
But many of those who have signed up for HTI have found that their skills can benefit industry too. Denise Watson has been head teacher of Chaucer School in Sheffield for eight years and was awarded an OBE for services to education in 1995. She spent last year at Kingston Communications, a telecommunications company in Hull, working on a scheme to encourage local businesses to make more use of multimedia training.
Denise's knowledge of information technology had improved somewhat from the day when she had to ask the school technician what a modem was, but she still wasn't prepared for the bewildering array of computer jargon that greeted her on her first day. "I suppose in terms of the technology I was thrown in at the deep end, but sometimes that's the best way - you either sink or swim," she said.
She started with the preconceived idea that education had everything to learn from industry about managing our schools. But experience soon taught her that this was not the case.
"I came across some superb businesses," she said, "but I also saw some that, if they had been Ofsted-ed, would have been classified as in need of special measures."
One company was applying for Investors in People (the government-backed scheme for promoting better staff training) but hadn't told its workforce, and another, although it was supporting staff through university, put them back in exactly the same jobs when they graduated. These and other cases convinced her that schools can outperform industry when it comes to optimising their greatest resource - people.
"I think we are really good at getting the most out of our staff. Teachers need to have really quite sophisticated management skills. But as in many secondary schools, if there is a weakness in businesses, it is in the middle-management layer where people are skilled but they have been there for some time and are getting bored or disillusioned."
This gave her the idea for a series of short-term secondments of staff from local businesses in Sheffield to work as consultants to schools, tackling problem areas such as staff IT knowledge and materials purchasing.Together with a colleague from another school in the city, she is seeking funding for the project from the local training and enterprise council.
All in all, she says, her secondment was "a tremendous experience". She has gone back to school with hugely improved IT skills, singing the praises of spreadsheets, and with renewed enthusiasm. Governors and Ofsted inspectors permitting, she says HTI is something all headteachers could benefit from.
Kirkhallam Community School in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, had just passed its Ofsted inspection and its headteacher, Andrew Shaw, was looking for a new challenge. "I had been in the job 13 years and I had reached a point where I felt I had achieved all the targets I had set myself." He applied to HTI and has just begun a secondment at 121 Consulting in Birmingham, where he has been put in charge of recruitment and training to the IT company.
"I thought being on secondment would mean shadowing somebody, but they just said to me 'Here's the job - get on with it!' There are a lot of things that are quite similar to working in a school in that you are trying to build a team and deliver a vision. Where it differs is that there isn't the constant human interaction of a school day and that, so far, none of my colleagues have brought their parents in to see me!"
He's finding the business environment a lot more proactive, with none of the stages of referral involved in school decision making. "If you want to change things radically in a school you have to deal with a lot of people and it takes a long time to get things done. That doesn't happen here.
"This kind of thing should be built in to headteachers' jobs. It's important for heads and senior staff particularly to keep abreast of things in the outside world and I would recommend this to anyone in that position."
Mr Shaw is certain that he will go back to Kirkhallam a different person,with vastly improved IT skills and a headful of ideas for greater efficiency.
With the new National Qualification for Headteachers set to start in September, HTI is aiming to establish more shorter-term secondments for aspiring heads to dovetail with the new course.
Another graduate of HTI has become an enthusiastic advocate of its benefits to an overseas audience. Caroline Faulkner, a former deputy head of Bexhill High School, East Sussex, spent last year on secondment to British Rail, working on the recruitment for female drivers.
Education and the railway industry might seem worlds apart but the placement taught her a lot about the management of change, something which is serving her well in her new job.
Now resident in Johannesburg, Caroline is laying the foundations for a similar headteacher secondment scheme in the township schools. "School principals are desperate to get some sort of training that's going to help them improve their schools, but they are battling against things like no running water and not being able to upgrade the electricity so they can use computers."
A new school governor programme giving local people and businesses a stake in the running of their schools is, she says, indicative of the desire to involve everybody in the rebuilding of the nation's schools.
A system of Heads, Teachers Induarty based on the British model is due to begin in May next year. "But it won't be exactly the same. School principals don't want to be told what to do - that's just colonialism. They want to be asked what they want. It's a huge task, but there is a tremendous feeling of optimism here despite all the problems."