Industry is music to heads' ears

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Pupils and teachers can learn a thing or two from visiting entrepreneurs. Anat Arkin reports

Lester Davies looks back on his year-long secondment to the Bass brewery group as one of the best professional development experiences he has ever had. So when he heard of a programme that turns the secondment process on its head and sends people from business into schools, he decided to give it a try.

Chadsmead primary school in Lichfield, where Mr Davies is headteacher, usually organises an extended activity for children in the summer term.

Staff wanted to do something special this year with their 10 and 11-year-olds, and tapping into outside expertise seemed a good way to proceed.

"We were very keen to have something really creative, exciting and stimulating for the children as a huge contrast to the Sats they take in May," said Mr Davies.

Heads, Teachers and Industry (HTI), the educational charity that arranged his own secondment seven years ago, matched the school with Izzy Ali-McLachlan from the Technology Innovation Centre at the University of Central England. Mr Ali-McLachlan has a background in product design and worked in industry before becoming a university lecturer. He is also a keen musician who plays and builds a wide variety of musical instruments. These include mandolins, guitars, as well as the more exotic cittern, an old English precursor of the guitar, and something called a canjo - a type of banjo that uses a tin can as a resonator.

Starting off with a blank sheet of paper, he and Lester Davies, together with Chadsmead's Year 5 and 6 staff, came up with a cross-curricular project with a difference. The children would not only design and make their own musical instruments, and produce a video showing how they had done this, they would also use the latest software to compose their own songs and finally put on a charity concert for parents and the local community. It may sound like a tall order for such young children, but Izzy Ali-McLachlan, whose enthusiasm for the project seems to equal theirs, said: "I believe in terms of product design that you can never start to think about how to change the world too early.

"So teaching kids of primary school age how musical instruments are made and work doesn't just teach them about music. It teaches them about physics, about design technology and about recycling. It also gets them to ask questions about how everything else is made and how everything else works."

Take5, the programme that brought Izzy Ali-McLachlan and Chadsmead school together, was launched at the Confederation of British Industry's conference last November. The thinking behind this Department for Education and Skills-funded scheme is that while schools and businesses often face similar challenges, schools - unlike most businesses - cannot afford to employ specialists in finance, marketing and other management disciplines.

The scheme, therefore, gives them free-of-charge access to the services of people who act, in effect, as specialist consultants.

Schools that want to get involved submit a project brief identifying the skills they need. HTI, which has arranged secondments for around 400 school leaders since 1986, draws on this experience to find suitable partners for the schools. It then monitors progress against outcomes agreed by the two parties at the start of the project.

There has been no shortage of businesses wanting to take part so far, says Roger Opie, director of the HTI Trust, the charity's research and development arm. Smaller businesses have been especially keen to sign up to Take5, so-called because secondees typically offer five days of their time over five weeks.

"We are now getting some of the large corporations saying they want to go big on this. Some are talking in terms of doing 40 or 50 secondments in the next 12 months," said Mr Opie.

While Chadsmead primary has brought in outside expertise to enhance children's learning, other schools are looking for help with marketing, building projects and strategic planning. Countess Anne Church of England primary school in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, is working with entrepreneur Adrian Critchlow on a five-year strategic plan. Set up in 1735 by the Salisbury family who still live in nearby Hatfield House, the one-form entry school had falling rolls and was in serious weaknesses in 2002 when David Lodge took over as its fifth head in two years. "We are now out of serious weaknesses and we are turning the school around," he says. "But to sustain that over the long-term future, I needed a strategic plan and that's why Adrian has come in."

The school has extensive grounds and a large annexe, which is now leased out but could eventually house a nursery and facilities for after-school care and adult learning. That would fit in with the extended schools initiative and give the school an edge over its two-form entry neighbours.

"Other schools in the area are also being developed. So it's a question of where this school fits in and what it should be doing with its site, what services it provides and how," said Adrian Critchlow, who has built up and sold two successful businesses and is currently converting a Grade I listed building outside Cambridge into a luxury hotel. He believes this entrepreneurial background gives him an unconventional way of looking at things that could help the school.

"My role is to try and help put together a strategy that perhaps brings out elements that David wouldn't necessarily have thought of ... and look at the resources both in the school and outside that he can bring to bear on the school."

Some schools involved in Take5 have submitted projects that are more tightly focused on particular management issues. These include Calthorpe sports college, a large special school in Birmingham. With around 230 teaching and non-teaching staff, the school had decided some time ago that it needed a human resources manager to look after personnel matters which were taking up an increasing amount of the leadership team's time. But making this appointment presented its own challenges.

"We had some support from the local education authority but we were struggling to draw up a job description and an advert, simply because we are used to wording advertisements for teaching posts," says Judith Humphry, one of Calthorpe's two deputy heads.

When she received a letter from HTI inviting proposals for projects that might be taken up by the Take5 programme, Ms Humphry outlined the help the school needed. She was put in touch with Janice Welsh, human resources manager at a Birmingham company called Cleone Foods Ltd, who has helped the school draw up a job description and advertisement.

Describing Janice Welsh's contribution as invaluable, Ms Humphry said: "She has also said that she will assist us with the selection and interview process."

But it is not only schools that are benefiting from Take5. "Our evaluations are picking up very clearly that there is payback for businesses in this," said Roger Opie. "They are saying that their staff are getting an experience of management and leadership in another environment and in many cases it's also apparent that it's going to lead to a longer contact with the school. So it's a win-all-round job."

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