We mean business
At her first meeting with Microsoft, Eileen Speirs, the depute headteacher at Galston Primary in East Ayrshire, was told to get to a travel agent: she was going to its international forum. Three weeks later, she found herself on a plane to Estonia.
The forum allowed her to meet teachers from across Europe, all involved in the computer giant's global innovative teacher initiative to encourage new thinking in teaching. It was a good start to her secondment.
Since then, her experiences have been much less exotic, though no less useful, as she works to encourage teachers to use information technology in new and creative ways.
Ostensibly for one day a week, Mrs Speirs meets people outside her school.
The experience has been refreshing and motivating, helping her to identify her own leadership qualities.
Her project is part of a new drive by East Ayrshire to improve schools leadership by linking up with businesses.
"We have developed a comprehensive leadership programme which aims to meet the needs of aspiring principal teachers right through to experienced headteachers," explains Gillian Hamilton, the continuing professional development co-ordinator in East Ayrshire.
"However, when we were developing this programme, it quickly became evident that professional development for our leaders is not only about providing a range of courses, but about providing opportunities for staff to access a whole range of professional development activities. We felt that strengthening links with business to help develop school leaders was an important aspect of the programme."
The authority identified teacher secondments as a key way of achieving such links and began investigating the best opportunities available. It found Heads, Teachers and Industry, a not-for-profit organisation set up in 1986 in Coventry by a group of business leaders concerned that school leavers did not fulfil the employment needs of industry. Its solution was to uproot heads and deputies from their comfort zones for up to a year and give them the opportunity to work in business.
These secondments would give them first-hand experience of leadership and management in a different culture. At the same time they would let them see employability issues from a business perspective to help prepare students better for the workplace.
"A few years ago, research conducted by a leading management college concluded that one of the most powerful ways of stretching leadership capability is to step out of your comfort zone and transplant yourself for an extended period of time into a completely different environment," says Anne Evans, the HTI's chief executive.
"This is what HTI secondments are all about: gaining new perspectives on leadership, building understanding of the bigger picture outside education, breaking down silo thinking and doing, making an impact on the way our schools are led and the way our children are educated. They are also about thinking long-term, rather than short-term.
"Teachers are so busy dealing with the day-to-day pressures of school life that they seldom have the opportunity to look over the parapet."
Mrs Speirs is the first secondment among East Ayrshire's school leaders but her experience has been slightly unusual in that she continues to work within education on the days she can escape the rigours of running a school. Other secondments in the pipeline will take teachers into the corporate world. One involves working with the Royal Bank of Scotland and the other with Spirit AeroSystems (Europe).
The schools involved will be paid cover, which makes it seems so easy. But Mrs Speirs admits that, despite having money to pay for a supply teacher, she is sometimes unable to leave the school when she should, so her project has to be flexible.
Neither is it always easy for a school to cover the responsibilities of a senior manager. Galston Primary has coped by giving some of Mrs Speirs's tasks to a particularly able principal teacher, Lesley Bell.
"It does mean having to work late sometimes, but it has honed my time and organisational skills considerably," says Mrs Speirs, who recently finished her Scottish Qualification for Headship and felt she had the time to try something different.
Most of her project work involves visiting schools and having regular meetings with the partners involved: East Ayrshire, Determined to Succeed, HM Inspectorate of Education and Microsoft. However, she has been on management training at HTI in Coventry.
"We did two sessions, one on employability and the other on schools and children of the future," she explains. "This included questioning our own skills and we had to do a personality self-assessment, looking at our leadership attributes.
"It came out that I am very people-oriented with good listening and communication skills and a good ability to support people."
East Ayrshire is keen that other aspiring heads have similar opportunities and is seeking applicants for the other two secondments.
"By taking a funded secondment into business for anything from six weeks to 12 months, educationists can undertake interim management responsibilities and stretch their own leadership skills in a new environment," says Mrs Hamilton.
"This experience provides an opportunity to understand what industry requires of young people who will become the employees of tomorrow."