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8th July 2005 at 01:00
In a radical experiment in Chile, teachers run their own school and share the profits

Over the past three years, Nilda Sotelo Sorribles, headteacher of Maria Luisa Bombal school in Santiago, Chile, has become an ambitious businesswoman.

Her state school - located in Vitacura, a wealthy, leafy suburb of Santiago, overlooked by snow-capped mountains - is only one of three in Chile completely managed and run by teachers.

In effect, Ms Sorribles, 59, who has 25 years' teaching experience, is the chief executive of the school as well as being in charge of the academic side.

"We are engaged in an exciting experiment," she says from a tiny office, with the din of construction workers outside building several new classrooms. "I think everyone - the teachers and the pupils - benefits from it. In time, I would like to manage other state schools."

Ms Sorribles ended up running a company - as well as a school - because of the far-sightedness of RaNol Torrealba del Pedregal, the mayor of Vitacura, which has a population of 81,500.

He gave all the schools within his neighbourhood the chance to become self-governing, although only the teachers at Mar!a Luisa Bombal seized the opportunity.

"Other schools decided against it because it involves a big change in teachers' employment status," says Mar!a Leticia Obando, head of English and one of the original 32 teacher-partners. "State teachers in Chile are protected by special laws that give them considerable job security.

However, we had to forsake this to set up the company and now operate under the general code of employment."

She said that all the teachers at the 520-pupil school - which provides junior, primary and secondary education from the age of four to 18 - took part in a series of roundtable discussions before voting in favour of the change. Four teachers did not agree to it and were transferred to other state schools nearby.

"Everyone needed convincing that this was the right way to go," says Sorribles.

"It was difficult to start down this path because we were teachers, not business people. But we now have no regrets - self-management has led to higher levels of motivation among pupils and teachers."

Any profits can be shared among teachers. This and their sense of ownership helps to motivate them, though it raises questions about whether partners who leave the school can share in the profits.

The school has an annual budget of 600 million pesos (pound;560,000). It started three years ago with a working capital of just 3.5m pesos (Pounds 3,300) but now has a surplus of 250m pesos (pound;230,000).

One-third of the budget comes from the government and two-thirds from the local town council (which is also paying for the classrooms under construction).

The teachers outsource cleaning and hire accountants, lawyers and educational specialists when needed. "This is not privatisation. We do not charge the parents," Ms Sorribles adds.

According to the National System for Measuring Quality in Education in Chile, the school's examination results are now 40 points above the national average -compared with 25 points above before the introduction of self-management. It is the highest-achieving state school in the neighbourhood. Although some 60 per cent of the pupils come from the wealthy suburb, 15 per cent are the sons and daughters of maids.

But Ms Sorribles and her team are building on strong foundations.

Since 1999, the school has been deemed excellent in each of the biannual School of the Year Awards. Around 1,800 schools from a total of 14,200 in Chile receive this accolade.

Three years ago, it was one of the first five schools in Chile to receive an Educational Quality Management Mark from Fundaci"n Chile, a prestigious national body promoting technological and economic progress.

Consuelo Gazmuri Plaza, president of the Quality of School Management Council, part of Fundaci"n Chile, said: "Currently, only 20 schools in Chile have the mark, which is worked out according to a balanced scorecard methodology.

"It is only granted to those that demonstrate the very best management systems, including procedures to evaluate teachers and to analyse exam results. We hope to extend it to one hundred schools by the end of 2006."

Ms Sorribles said that one of the biggest advantages of being self-governing is that the school can hire outside educational experts to train teachers. Every teacher spends two hours a week with an external specialist. Currently, the consultants are helping maths teachers improve lesson plans and study programmes.

She adds: "We are able to take decisions as the teaching body, focusing on areas in need of improvement and investing in educational resources that help teaching.

"The system is more personalised and practical, avoiding bureaucracy and offering rapid solutions to problems. Learning becomes more personalised because we are able to constantly evaluate it and re-orientate our work, modifying teaching programmes in the light of external supervision from the local council and Fundaci"n Chile."

Fundaci"n Chile, for example, noticed that pupils did not use computer software when they studied English and maths so this has now been introduced.

Since 1996, the school has also been a pioneer in implementing the ideas of Reuven Feuerstein, the Israeli psychologist, about developing pupils' cognitive capacity through small-group work on lateral thinking.

Manuel Salinas, headteacher at Dagoberto Godoy five-to-14 school in a poor suburb of Santiago, said that while some teachers might see self-management as a route to higher salaries, others would find it daunting.

But Ms Gazmuri Plaza said Fundaci"n Chile had given the teachers of Mar!a Luisa Bombal a clear management model to follow. "These teachers have done well, you only have to look at the latest results of the school."

Email: Nilda Sotelo Sorribles: nildasotelo@yahoo.esConsuelo Gazmuri Plaza:

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