The Interview - 'We tease out the best bits'

12th June 2009 at 01:00

Janus van Helfteren is managing director of school photography firm Van Cols. He has learnt more about people management from teachers than any training course.

How did you get into school photography?

I never realised I had a choice. I always thought I would have quite liked to have been a teacher, but my parents were photographers and, luckily, I was good at it. I started shooting school portraits when I was 19. It's great training. I learnt to work quickly, to think on my feet, and how to manage people who don't really like to be managed.

Van Cols is now one of the largest educational media, photography and website designers working with schools in the UK. We deal with all sorts of commercial businesses, as well as marketing and publicity work for schools.

How did you get into the education market?

The original family business (started by my mother and father) was school portraits and advertising photography. I drifted into school photography and then, when state schools decided they needed to market themselves, they trusted me because they knew we understood the system. We now work with about 150 schools - from shooting individual portraits to building websites.

Do you think you have a part to play in school improvement?

School improvement is the sum of the parts. There are plenty of aspects to it, publicity being a major part. Schools need to feel good about themselves internally, as well as looking good on the outside. Schools are often a lot better than they think they are. They just need someone like us to point it out to them and tease out the best bits, along with improving the worst bits.

Most children are well-intentioned, if managed properly. The key is getting the right staff, motivated and trained to deal with whatever is thrown at them. That's where I think we help.

I have worked with schools that have poor reputations but are actually as good, if not better, than schools that are supposed to be outstanding. It's about perception, really.

Our best customers in marketing and publicity often have the worst public image, but because they know they need help, they are really the best; they are never complacent.

What strikes you when you go into a school?

Some schools strike me as having a serene and calm atmosphere. Some seem hectic and have a frenetic pace. I'm not quite sure why that is.

I notice the condition of the school, whether there's artwork or news clippings in the reception. In terms of working with them, some are really organised and have a strong vision of how they want to be portrayed. Some are open to taking advice and being pointed in the right direction.

What I do think is you can't generalise. Quite a few leaders start by saying they don't know much about marketing and publicity, but in my experience they know an awful lot and they're generally willing to learn more. That's what makes working in schools so great.

Are there any schools that are reluctant to be photographed?

There are some staff or departments who try to avoid being involved. I mostly try to find something in their area that looks great and works well. Those teachers often say: "Is that our school? We didn't realise it looked so good." Or even better: "Are they our kids?"

Are there similarities between running a company and a school?

Yes. It's all about people management and inspiration. I have learnt more from teachers by working in schools and with school leadership teams than I have from management training courses. People in schools are not afraid of learning. They don't see it as a threat. I love that.

I have met some amazing managers in schools who I would put up against the best of the best in the commercial world. Sometimes you hear that commercial managers are disparaging about headteachers and teachers. I reply: "Try running a small town for a month and see how you get on." I'm quick to defend.

If businesses were as receptive as schools to new ideas, they would mostly make more money, and be nicer to each other.

What would your advice be to school leaders?

Stay calm. If you think you have seen a rat, it probably is a rat, so watch your back. In truth, I would never be so presumptuous to advise school leaders.

What would you do if you were Schools Secretary for the day?

Rebuild a lot more schools a lot sooner, and make sure that schools have the resources and skills to look after their environment. I say to my staff that you can tell what sort of day you are going to have at a school from your first 30 seconds in the building. Is it welcoming and professional? If it is, then usually the classrooms and attitude are too.

What is the worst excuse you have heard in school, from anyone?

"The dog ate it." I also sometimes hear people saying "they" are a horrible year group. I have always wondered what made "them" more horrible than others.


2009: Now 51, I am still planning to leave and get a proper job.

1999: Became MD when my mother retired, which then meant I had to learn sums.

1987: Ran the company when I was about 28.

1983: Took over the day-to-day management of production when I was 24.

1978: Joined the family business "temporarily" when I was 19.

1976: Colchester Art College.

1969: Stanway Secondary Modern (now The Stanway School) in Essex.

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