Primary's triumph is strictly boardroom

21st November 1997 at 00:00
A Welsh primary has snatched a major business award despite competition from companies such as NatWest, British Telecom and Hewlett Packard.

The headteacher's office at the winning Dell primary, a 392-pupil school in Chepstow, is a showroom of plaques, awards, statuettes and certificates - even the tie the head wears bears the quality shield of the chartermark scheme introduced by John Major.

Head Keith Rowlands insists "it's not the winning, but the process that counts", but concedes that "recognition is good for the soul". He says that he is "just an ordinary head, not a big head".

In the past two years the school - the only one in Wales to have a chartermark - has picked up the Investors in People award and a Welsh business award. Its 15 after-school clubs have won a training and enterprise council prize and Mr Rowland was named as Welsh Quality Person of the Year 1997. In addition, Dell also received a glowing inspection report listing 35 "very goods".

Two weeks ago a "terrified" Mr Rowlands received the equivalant of a "business Oscar" at an awards ceremony in London - the British Quality Foundation award for business excellence, sponsored by the UK's top 100 companies.

Such a strictly corporate affair is not the most obvious thing for a school to enter, let alone actually win. The Dell is the first public-sector organisation ever to have done so.

Richard Parker, UK award director, says: "Two years ago the Benefits Agency was a finalist. And that's as close as the public sector has ever got. But I don't think it should be too surprising that a small school won.

"Just in the way that teaching has changed over recent years so has business. In modern business circles we no longer talk about managers who control, we talk about leaders who empower."

And that's just how Mr Rowlands sees himself. He talks of an "inverted pyramid structure" with the head at the base as an "inspiring anchor", as opposed to sitting at the top handing down orders.

Mr Rowland - whose door, he says, is always open - adds that he doesn't chair staff meetings except for maybe one a term. The staff lead their own meetings.

Each of the 12 full-time teachers and 22 support staff are "subject consultants" in their area of expertise, and chair curriculum development meetings, advising their colleagues and monitoring lessons. Openness extends to the school's "customers".

Mr Rowlands says: "Both pupils and parents take part in an annual survey. We have a customer-care policy whereby every parental concern is logged and replied to within seven days. Parents could write to a teacher every day for seven years if they so desired. They would still be guaranteed that reply. And as for pupils, we talk to them as we want to be talked to ourselves, with the utmost respect.

"Whichever way you look at it, people - be they pupils, parents or staff - are the centre of our business. "

Mr Rowlands has no idea why some heads complain about increasingly managerial roles. He admits he has a worrying enthusiasm for budgets and plans. "Managing a school is a complex process which hasn't achieved sufficient attention in the past. What's wrong with admitting that?"

You could forget that this slick business was a school, but for the pupils tearing around the playgrounds. The staff noticeboard lists three-year development criteria, priority action sheets and job clarification notices. And there's inspiration too in the dictum attributed to Mahatma Gandhi "the customer is the most important visitor".

Next year the Dell school will take on Europe's multi-nationals in the European finals of the Quality Award. If the school wins, then its staff will be invited to advise the directors of some of Europe's top companies on how to run a successful business.

"It's quite amusing isn't it?", says Mr Rowlands. "Primary teachers telling these big corporate fish about business strategy. But their acceptance of us as professionals must be good for education as a whole, must it not?"

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