Trading places

4th July 2008 at 01:00
Would you swap your classroom for the fast-paced business world? Madeleine Brettingham talks to a primary teacher and a corporate executive who spent a day in each other's lives
Would you swap your classroom for the fast-paced business world? Madeleine Brettingham talks to a primary teacher and a corporate executive who spent a day in each other's lives

At school, Richard Newland was one of those frighteningly enthusiastic pupils whose hands shoot up and down so much they're practically a blur, and was so hard-working his friends nicknamed him "keeno". These days, he's the 37-year-old highly-paid and well-travelled head of retail design at HSBC, one of the biggest and most profitable banks in the world, with a net income of $20.5 billion.

So why is he going back to school, swapping his sharp suits for a dressed-down polo shirt, and his PC and fax machine for red paint, hymn books and maths practice?

Well it's all part of a bold experiment, which The TES Magazine has organised to see how a captain of business will cope with life in a busy East End classroom.

It's Wednesday, and Richard is looking happy and energised, sitting in a sunny classroom at St Anne's Primary School in Whitechapel, east London.

"Living in Canary Wharf, I had preconceptions about schools in Tower Hamlets, that they would be full of kids with problems, buildings falling down. Actually, my preconceptions were wrong," he says.

Richard has swapped places with Kate Adams, a 28-year-old primary teacher, while Kate samples life as a retail manager at HSBC's 42-storey headquarters in Canary Wharf, a job that involves designing bank branches from Harrow to Hong Kong.

The two professions - each high-pressure and demanding in its own right - couldn't be more different. So which did our guinea pigs find hardest: teaching or business?

"Actually in some ways they're similar," says Richard, sitting in a miniature plastic chair, and reflecting on his day trying to control 29 rowdy Year 2s. "Like school, our bank is full of bright people who all have an opinion and sometimes you have to look out for the less confident ones.

"Although," he laughs, "sometimes it would be good to stick my hand up, like Kate does when she wants the pupils to be quiet, and have everyone fall silent."

Richard has obviously had a whale of a time at St Anne's, and is positively glowing from the afternoon's hand-painting session.

"I felt like a born-again kid, putting my hands in the paint with all the pupils," he says. "The big ones are mine," he adds, rather unnecessarily, pointing to a scroll of hand-painted sheets, where one set of huge daubs dwarfs the dainty fingerprints of his six and seven-year-old charges.

There are similarities between teaching and business: the constant struggle to balance action with bureaucracy - "navigating the treacle" as they call it at Canary Wharf - and team management.

But in the corporate surroundings of HSBC, you sense, there is less emphasis on crowd control.

"At first I was taken aback by how disciplinarian things were here," says Richard, gesturing to the classroom. "But you have to be, or they run riot."

As contrasts go, the one between St Anne's colourful chaotic low-rise building, and the marble extravagance of HSBC's headquarters only a few miles away in Docklands, couldn't be more striking.

Phalanxes of smart executives stride through the lobby, a huge screen buzzes with the latest exchange rate figures, and if you're lucky enough to take in the incredible view from the 42nd floor, your ears will pop three times in the lift on the way up.

It was a contrast Kate initially found daunting. "At first I was nervous," she says. "Which desk should I sit at? Should I ask someone where to go?"

But after being introduced to Richard's team, she soon settled in, visiting branches, video-conferencing, and taking an exclusive tour of the ultra-plush chairman's suite on the top floor.

"I thought I'd be sitting behind a desk all day, but it was active," she says. "Maybe there are some offices where people sit around bidding on eBay all day, but this certainly wasn't one."

Richard's ability to multi-task throughout his busy day impressed her. "He knew everyone's names, he was clued-up about new branches in the Czech republic, Ukraine, Rome and Vancouver, and people were stopping him in the corridor asking him questions constantly. It was amazing how he kept it all in his head," she says.

The bank's management style also taught her a few skills she'll find handy in the classroom. "Richard had a lot of time for everyone and took on board what they said. I feel that as a teacher you can get het up about what you want the kids to do. Sometimes it might be a good idea to step back and listen a bit more."

Exchanging hints and tips is all very well, of course. But what The TES Magazine wanted to know was: which job was toughest? "The honest truth," declares Richard, in a very gentlemanly fashion, "is teaching. If I don't do a good job, I can fix it. If Kate doesn't do a good job, she could affect a child for life."

And has Kate been tempted to give up the classroom for a life in big business? "It was interesting," she says. "But I couldn't. I love my pupils too much."



Begin my commute to the school. Am apprehensive about what's in store. Will the pupils like me?


Arrive late, because of traffic. It's the Wednesday morning team meeting, and being late is not the best start. Feel like a naughty school boy saying sorry too many times.


The meeting starts. Some of it is similar to the way I work, talking about leadership and the key challenges of managing a complex organisation.


We march across the road to church. The pupils chat to me, asking me questions, such as why do I have white hair, or no hair? Charming.


Break time. Never went into the off-limits teachers' lounge when I was at school. It feels strange.


RE. Kate manages the children really well again.


Lunchtime ends. We collect the children from the playground. I go outside first and am mobbed.


Computer time. I am struck by how computer literate they are and start to realise why teachers teach. It is great seeing their response when they learn something new.


Making cotton wool clouds and hand painting. I make the big mistake of putting both hands in the paint, then not being able to touch anything, including door handles, to get to the bathroom to clean them.


Read Cinderella to pupils.


Home time and I wave them all off fondly. They ask when I will be back. Am chuffed at how popular I am.

Richard Newland, HSBC's head of retail design, spent a day at St Anne's Primary School in Tower Hamlets



Spend far too long deciding what to wear for my day in an office. At least I don't have to worry about getting paint or sticky hands on my new skirt.


Sitting on the Jubilee line. Feels weird not to have a bag of books or be thinking of my lessons for the day.


Walk into the huge building that is HSBC and immediately feel overwhelmed. There are people everywhere who all know where they are going. I have no idea what to do. Am feeling excited, but a bit like the new child in the class.


Introduced to Richard's team. I had an image of boring office workers, tied to their computers. They are not at all as I imagined. Everyone is passionate about what they do.


Visit a branch closed for refurbishment. I look at the plans and discuss with the contractor what is happening. Am constantly surprised at the amount of thought and planning that goes into every step of the process.


Conference call with the design team in Sheffield. I discuss visits to branches in Europe, north and south America and the Middle East. Am jealous of all the travel the team appear to do, although I am sure it mainly involves visiting and supporting branches rather than sightseeing.


Taken for coffee - so nice to sit and look over London rather than be preparing for the end of the day.


The day is over. I've had a great time learning about life in business. What I thought would be an easy day in the life of an office worker was not the case at all - there are lots of different parts to the job. Not so different from life in school really.

Kate Adams, a Year 2 teacher at St Anne's Primary School in Tower Hamlets, spent a day in the retail design department at HSBC in Canary Wharf



Salary: pound;21,000 to pound;60,000

Hours: From 27 to 50 hours

Holiday: 13 weeks


Salary: pound;50,000 to pound;180,000

Hours: From 45 to 60 hours

Holiday: 30 days plus bank holidays

Office for National Statistics

School Teachers Review Body.

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