Expert urges firms to 'sit in classroom'

6th February 1998 at 00:00

Companies interested in running schools are being told to do their homework properly, reports Tim Cornwell

A leading industrialist known for championing the role of the private sector in American schools has raised a warning flag over the British Government's plan to bring business bosses into inner-city education.

Private firms which want to get involved in running schools need to do their own homework, sitting at the back of classrooms and talking to teachers and parents rather than "pontificating from business towers", he said.

Teachers and school personnel have a special expertise that "we don't have", said Bob Wehling, of the US multinational Procter Gamble. The key to success remains the "interface" between teacher and pupil, he said, with business playing a supportive role.

"The opportunity for the private sector to be helpful is dependent on its developing a first-hand familiarity with the situation and its problems, " he said. "It is very unhelpful to have business involvement when people have not spent a lot of time in schools."

In this country, Labour's plans involve private firms not only joining but in some cases running education action zones which are aimed at improving results in troubled urban areas. The scheme has brought angry criticism from some local authorities, which complain they are being squeezed out in a "Tory-style privatisation".

According to some press reports, Labour's zones are modelled on the experience in Cincinnati, Ohio - the city where Mr Wehling, a senior vice-president of Procter Gamble, has been working with schools.

Private firms in Cincinnati, a mid-sized, mid-western city on the Ohio River, stepped in with a reform plan when the school district hovered on the brink of bankruptcy in 1991. The Cincinnati Business Committee helped to slash the administration budget in half by cutting red tape and rechannelling funds direct to the 80 schools.

In 1996, the board of the school district adopted a five-year strategic plan that included a corporate-style approach, with teams of teachers monitoring the pupils' progress, setting targets for test scores and using innovative "operating models" akin to business plans.

But Mr Wehling, 58, who has been involved in education for 35 years, and is known nationally for his work, said he would not describe Cincinnati as a model for taking over schools. "We want to be supportive, not combative," he said. "We've got enough to do running our own business."

The biggest contribution of the business community which Mr Wehling singled out was raising the money for a professional development college, the Mayerson Academy.

Successful firms provide vastly more on-going training and development for their employees than the average school, he said. "We think it is critical to our success, and equally important in schools." Technological advances alone mean "a teacher who graduated 15 years ago without further training is now in serious trouble".

At Mayerson, up to 3,000 Cincinnati teachers a year attend voluntary retraining, much of it focused on pedagogy. In one major innovation, students can watch a recognised "master teacher" leading a class miles away, live, via closed-circuit television.

The teacher gives a running commentary on her own class via a small wireless microphone; it is designed to allow those watching to follow the hundreds of small instructional decisions which are said to be made in any one lesson.

In another part of the Cincinnati programme, a number of schools have paired principals with a corporate mentor, helping them manage budget decisions. Procter Gamble and other firms also run outreach programmes for pupils.

The ties between business and education chiefs in Ohio go beyond Cincinnati. Building Excellent Schools for Today and the 21st Century (BEST), is a state-wide coalition of 70 organisations running from General Motors and Goodyear Tyre and Rubber Co to the Catholic Church and teachers' unions.

BEST has a budget of $700,000 (Pounds 437,000) a year, raised entirely by private contributions. Its steering committee, where the Ohio schools superintendent rubs shoulders with corporate executives, meets weekly. The group is currently pushing for a one-cent sales tax increase to raise an extra billion dollars for the state schools.

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