Pearls of wisdom

28th March 1997 at 00:00
Heads can learn a lot from business placements, but they're lessons that take time to absorb, says Gerald Haigh.

Once, when I was a headteacher, I spent two weeks on secondment with a firm that made motor vehicle components. The best bit was being on their stand at the Motor Show, fending off small boys, spotting potential big spenders and making time with elegant PR ladies.

Those of us who did those short placements all felt that two weeks, though better than nothing, was not enough. You either had - as I did - what was really an extended factory tour, or you were stuck in an easy-to-learn job that provided little insight into how the big decisions were made. What a senior teacher really needs is some understanding of how companies are managed. The way to gain this is by working on one or more real projects at management level, with some benefit to the company. This, though, requires you to stay considerably longer than a couple of weeks.

Philippa Cherry, deputy head of Bretton Woods Community School in Cambridgeshire, is on a year's secondment in the personnel and administration department at the Peterborough headquarters of Pearl Assurance. Her placement was set up by Heads, Teachers and Industry (HTI).

Pearl Centre houses 2,000 workers in what seems like miles of open-plan offices. If you stand still for a moment you can hear what sounds like the distant sea but is actually the hum of countless voices and computer terminals. It could hardly feel more removed from school. "I had to reposition my thinking," says Philippa, euphemistically. As a deputy she was used to being a senior member of staff. "At school I am a big fish. Here I am a minnow in an ocean."

It is not just that Pearl - the biggest white-collar employer in Peterborough - is so much bigger. At Pearl, Philippa has also relinquished a lot of responsibility. Instead of an office, she has a desk. "I'm middle management here. Above me are lots of people who have the overview. I couldn't get hold of the whole picture, and it frustrated me at first. In my school most things crossed my desk. I knew everything that was going on."

There is no doubt, however, that Philippa has both enjoyed and benefited from her secondment. She has worked on a number of projects, including a review of the company's policies and literature on equal opportunities. This involved seeking out people across the organisation, and tracing lines of communication and responsibility. "I was using my personal skills - networking, and making contacts. When people found out who I was, they were absolutely fascinated. " There are "the usual teacher jokes - if I come in with my coat on they ask if I'm on playground duty", but "nobody is ever less than completely co-operative".

From Pearl's point of view, Philippa Cherry brings not only particular management skills, and a valued link with education, but an unprejudiced outside view. As her senior manager, Ian Ferguson, explains, she is unhindered by any need to think of her future with the organisation. "She's going to go back to her school and her post will be there for her," he says. "She's like a consultant in a way: she can bring her perspective in a fearless way."

But what will she take away with her? The main benefit, she says, is a sharper understanding of what employers look for when they recruit school-leavers. As a senior teacher with a particular interest in careers work, she felt she already knew a great deal, "But to actually see the practical importance of it made me much more aware; here, for example, they interviewed 600 people for 100 jobs last year."

She has also learned some new and relevant skills, "specialist things to do with personnel management. I've been on some training to do with competence-based interviewing, and I hope to do some assessment training. " Philippa's position a few layers down in the organisation, striving for some grasp of the larger picture, has also made her "much more empathetic with middle managers in school!" As to the next step, she is still uncertain. Everyone who has a year out, either in industry or on a course, faces two problems when the year finishes. If you go back to the old job, people may not appreciate that you have moved on, that you have returned with new knowledge and different skills. Overcoming this may call for some assertiveness.

The opposite danger is to become unsettled, and so keen not to go back that you end up taking a job that you would not otherwise have looked at. Her awareness of the first of these pitfalls is one reason why Philippa Cherry has kept in close contact with her school -receiving documents, making presentations to governors, meeting the head, making everyone aware of what she has been doing and learning. It seems unlikely, too, that she will fall into the opposite trap and grab the first new job that comes along. Not that she isn't aware of the new opportunities: she is "very interested in the area of management development and training".

What is certain, she believes, is that the value of a secondment to career development has to be realised while it is still fresh in the memory. "You ought to cash in on it quickly, probably within a year of finishing, in whatever way."

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