Take my advice

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Ten years ago few people had heard of education consultants. Now schools could be paying as much as pound;400 million a year for their services.

But who are they, and are they really worth the money? Fran Abrams reports

Back in the olden days, early retirement meant extra holidays in France or more time to potter in the garden. It might have meant a welcome sense of release, or even a feeling of deflation or failure. But in the modern mixed-economy world of education in which everyone - even a defence contractor or a road-builder - has something to contribute, it can mean something quite different: consultancy.

"I have a substantial pension so, unlike some others, I don't have to go out and graft. But it's nice every time I wander down to the bank and put a cheque in. I'm earning slightly more now than I was before," muses one early-retired headteacher, now juggling no fewer than five consultancy contracts.

In this world, past success or failure can be strangely irrelevant. "People are very charitable," explains Jill Clough, former head of the Royal Naval school (now the Royal school), in Haslemere, Surrey, and of Wimbledon high school, both leading girls' independents. Late in her career, she decided to take on the job of turning round a failing state school, the East Brighton College of Media Arts (Friday magazine, January 5, 2001).

Although she brought the school out of special measures, the experiment ended badly. Two years after starting the job, she had a breakdown and was forced to resign in March 2003. The school is due to close in August 2005, after exam results failed to improve sufficiently. Now she is living in the Lake District, working as an education consultant.

"People aren't interested in what you've done," she says. "You are not there to impart your own experience. You are there to help them make the most of theirs."

When the history of education consultancy is written, its opening chapter will probably begin with the advent of Ofsted, a decade ago. While the private sector had always had a role in providing education services, through independent schools, the new inspection system brought private companies into an area that hitherto had largely been the domain of the public sector: the sale of expertise. Soon there was a burgeoning market in educational advice, and it continued to grow with each new government initiative.

It is ironic, then, that Education Secretary Charles Clarke chose to pick out education consultants for criticism in a recent speech to the General Teaching Council for England. What were they for, he asked rhetorically? Was it time to question this government-sponsored proliferation?

"There was a good reason for all of them and many are very constructive, but are they as focused and as coherent as they should be in helping the professional development of teachers?" he asked.

The message was received with bewilderment by some of those present. The past five years have seen an explosion in the sector as the Government has launched initiative upon initiative. Literacy and numeracy programmes have produced a new breed of adviser, and a burgeoning market in professional development services. Workforce reform, changes in children's services, the increasing use of IT - each has trailed lucrative consultancy contracts in its wake.

"I think he was saying, not that the numbers of advisers were excessive, but that there should be more coherence," says John Chowcat, general secretary of the National Association of Educational Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants (NAEIAC). "The idea is that they should be more clearly focused on teaching and learning."

There are no hard figures on the number of people now operating as education consultants in the private sector. But NAEIAC has 4,000 members, of whom about 40 per cent are employed by local authorities as advisers, according to Mr Chowcat. A survey commissioned in 2002 by the Employers'

Organisation for local government found about 5,500 education advisers working in the public sector, 15 per cent more than four years previously.

But, Mr Chowcat says, the real explosion has been in the private sector. If the public-private split among NAEIAC members is representative, there must now be about 14,000 education advisers and consultants. Of those, more than 8,000 must be in the private sector. If anything, this is an underestimate as the public sector is likely to be over-represented in NAEIAC's membership. Ofsted alone has 5,600 freelance school inspectors on its books, all of whom have updated their inspection skills on training courses within the past year.

Even on such conservative figures, the amount of consultancy work now available is staggering. As one expert has observed, most of those people will be working around 100 days a year on average, at a daily fee of around pound;500, plus travel and other expenses. That adds up to a private-sector consultancy budget of around pound;400million, or pound;15,700 for every school in England, including nursery schools and the independent sector.

The phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by the captains of industry. Among the major companies to set up education consultancies are defence contractor the VT Group (formerly Vosper-Thorneycroft) and Serco, which is also responsible for maintaining the electronic signs on motorways.

"An increasing amount of money is being spent in the education world," explains David McGahey, managing director of VT Education and Skills and convenor of the Private Sector Education Group, which represents most of the larger companies in the market.

"Companies typically make money by adding value and creating efficiencies.

Increasingly, schools and local authorities turn to the consultancy market when they need to develop a curriculum area or require some specialist skills."

Ten years ago, when Ofsted was launched, it drew many of its freelance staff from the ranks of former local authority education officers or HMI inspectors. Mr McGahey was director of education in Buckinghamshire before he moved to the private sector three years ago. Now, increasingly, the new breed of consultant has come straight from a senior post within a school; in short, they have been at the sharp end, delivering education, rather than having worked as professional advisers.

Some observers have their doubts about the wisdom of this. Del Goddard, a former chief inspector with the London borough of Enfield, who is now a consultant, says he believes the job requires a broader range of experience than a single headship can provide. "I can think of some consultants who have no idea of how to engage in training or other work; they haven't got the skills they need. You can be an excellent teacher, but there's an additional set of characteristics necessary to do this kind of work. You have to be able to go into a training room in Doncaster, get the feel of a group of people, understand their context and move things forward," he says. "Some people just can't do that."

Another consultant, a head who recently took early retirement, has similar reservations, particularly about the growing use of current or former heads on consultancy contracts to "turn round" schools with problems.

"When someone moves into a second headship there's no guarantee they'll do it any better than they did their first one," he says. "Often, it's worse.

But there's an awful lot of work out there for people wanting to do consultancy. Increasingly, local authorities are looking to consultants as a model rather than having their own team for school development.

Consultants are cheaper."

Even those headteachers with troubled histories now find they can turn their experiences to good effect. After resigning as head of East Brighton college, Jill Clough knew she still had much to offer. "I felt frustrated because I had learned an enormous amount," she says. "I had a lot of experience in my head. It took me the better part of a year, but I now feel comfortable as a consultant."

She has picked up work with the National College for School Leadership (NCSL), which has trained more than 400 headteachers to work as "consultant leaders" in other schools, and with the consulting arm of the Secondary Heads' Association, which has about 60 or 70 people on its books, about half of them still in post. She has also run a conference with the British Council and works with a group of schools in South Lakeland.

"The width of my experience has been helpful," she says. "It's given me an insight into the factors that make for effective organisations. Being able to listen to what people say about themselves and how they describe their experiences helps to find how the system they work in can be made effective."

Her own difficult experience of working in a failing school has not caused any scepticism among her current clientele, she says.

"I don't preach about what I have done. That's not the point. I don't talk directly about my experiences unless I am asked. That isn't the job of a consultant. The job of the consultant is to get under the skin of the people and the organisation you are working with and to help them to see what they can do better."

Even if she had stayed at Brighton, she says, she would have become a consultant sooner or later. "I always had it in mind. I enjoy the experience of helping and listening. I have this naive belief in growing older and wiser," she says.

A growing number of the new type of consultant are still in post as headteachers, dividing their time between their own schools and their work elsewhere. There is a risk, some admit, of spreading themselves too thinly.

But most believe the additional experience they gain as consultants brings more back to their schools than they take out.

"Why do I do this stuff?" muses one head- teacher-consultant. "Because I am still a member of the community. I hope if I work with another school that I can help it get better."

This particular head hands his full fee, usually between pound;300 and pound;600 a day, to his governing body, but he knows others keep at least a proportion of the extra cash they earn.

He admits there are times when he realises he has spent too much time away from his own school. "I do one-and-a-half days' consultancy a week, but that doesn't mean I work three-and-a-half days in my own school. I just work six-and-a-half days out of seven," he says. "I know when I started to be away too much. We were doing an internal review of a department and one of the teachers seemed reluctant to talk. She said she used to see me all the time, but felt inhibited because she hadn't seen me for a while.

"A couple of weeks ago my deputy said to me, 'You're being busy today.' I think when you've been out of school too much you start to try to compensate for it."

Most heads who take on this additional role agree that the work brings more back to their schools than it takes out. Liz Moffatt, head of Dowdales school in Cumbria, has completed the NCSL's consultant leader's programme and now acts as a facilitator on courses training other heads to do the same. "Certainly as far as my own leadership of my own school is concerned, it has helped me to do the job better," she says. "It offers me an opportunity to keep fresh."

She takes a "preparation fee" from the money she earns, and puts the rest into a school fund, which this year helped to pay for a group of pupils to visit Australia. Like many others who have taken on the role, she speaks a language that sounds as if it has sprung from the world of management consultancy rather than from the classroom.

"Quite a large part of the programme is about client-centred consultancy.

It's about enabling people to work through the issues they have and for themselves to discover, if you like, a new way of walking through a new future, a new solution," she explains. Participants on the programme are subjected to "360-degree feedback", in which they are judged on their performance by all their peers, junior and senior.

It's a different world from the one into which the first consultants struck out a decade or more ago. One of those pioneers was Angela Monkman-Brushett, a former deputy head in Lancashire, who left to set up a business finding schools for the children of upwardly mobile executives.

Later she did consultancy work for local authorities, as well as acting as an expert witness in court cases. "Then, women were 10 years behind men on the promotion ladder," she says. "And though I'd enjoyed being deputy head of a large comprehensive, there came a time when I needed to branch out.

It's very different now, though. Education consultancy isn't finding its way any more; it knows where it's going."

While she sees this as a positive development, others are suspicious. John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, is among the sceptics. "I have reservations about the plethora of consultants springing up," he says. "At least the LEA literacy and numeracy advisers are accountable to the authority. And they are accountable through Ofsted if things go wrong. A consultant can just flit in and flit out again."

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