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Threads of theory tailored to experience

Anat Arkin meets the first year's intake of a distance-learning MBA which teachers can interweave with their day-to-day practice.

Leicester University's distance-learning course in educational management is called an MBA but it does not aim to turn out masters of business administration.

It is designed to help managers bring about improvements in their schools or colleges, and includes little of the general management theory that is usually found on MBA programmes.

There are those who believe that the same management principles apply to all organisations. But Tony Bush, professor of educational management at Leicester says: "The other side of the argument, which on balance I support, is that in education there is a set of circumstances which mark it out as so different that a degree of specificity is essential to make management development relevant."

There is, he points out, no parallel in industry to the national curriculum - nor are there parallels in education to hamburgers, cars or other industrial products. Both school managers and the adults they manage are professionals and this also throws up issues unique to education.

While the Leicester MBA draws on some principles from general management theory and, more rarely, uses examples from industry, most of the case studies and examples in course materials are of good practice in schools and colleges. The programme also encourages students to apply the management concepts they learn to their own work.

The MBA is made up of five modules and a planning unit designed to help students map out their programme of study and relate it to their role in school. One module consists of a course in research methods, an assignment and a 20,000-word project on a management subject.

Each of the other four modules is made up of options and a 5,000-word assignment on a subject which students agree with their tutors.

Because of the rapid pace of change in education, the course team is committed to reviewing learning materials every two years.

"It's difficult to predict what seismic changes will come along next," says Tony Bush. "But we would revise the curriculum and themes of the MBA programme and not just the case studies and examples."

The distance-learning programme is one of three models that Leicester University uses to deliver its MBA in educational management.

As well as a part-time evening programme held at the university's sites in Northampton and Leicester, there are school or college-based programmes tailored to the needs of participants in individual institutions.

What is unusual about the distance learning model is that there are no face-to-face tutorials or residential courses, though students can contact their tutors by phone or fax. This absence of fixed points on the course calendar means that students can join at any time of year and take course modules in any order. They can also drop the course for a while and take it up later.

As the programme has been running for only a year, it is too early to tell how well students are coping without the occasional face-to-face contact offered by the Open University and most other distance learning providers. But with 282 students already enrolled, the MBA is clearly meeting a need for a management development programme that causes minimum disruption to teachers' personal and professional lives.

Students need a degree or teaching qualification to join the programme (and according to Tony Bush, there is no real difference in the quality of work produced by the two groups).

Participants also need to be managers or aspiring managers in schools or colleges. But because of the difficulty of defining the point at which teachers become managers, the university does not insist on actual managementexperience.

Students currently on the programme range from those who just meet the minimum entry requirement of three years' professional experience, to those who already hold headships. Course members even include the former dean of education in a South Africanuniversity.

Perhaps the one common factor uniting this wide range of students is the belief that effective management improves the quality of learning in schools and colleges.

Arguing that recent improvements in schools owe something to the expansion of educational management development over the past 10 years, Tony Bush of Leicester says: "The reason I'm in this game is because educational development matters to me and to our course participants.

"What we are really about is what we might call improvement and the Government might call standards."

For GEORGE FEWSTER and seven of his colleagues, the Leicester University MBA is part of a package of measures tied to the development of Yewlands School.

Staff at the 11-16 Sheffield comprehensive were offered training in total quality management - the system that builds in continuous improvement - a couple of years ago.

The training - courtesy of the Royal Mail and the stainless steel company Avesta Sheffield - helped members of the school's four development groups to refine their vision. Some of the staff then decided that the distance-learning MBA would be a useful way of building on the TQM work.

"The advantage of the course is that it ties in very closely with the work we are doing and gives it a theoretical basis," says Mr Fewster, one of Yewlands' deputy heads. He added that because eight members of staff are taking the MBA, none of them feels isolated.

Yewlands has seen some improvements over the past two years: the number of pupils at the school gaining GCSE grades A-C has more than doubled and Year 7, which used to be undersubscribed, isnow full.

Mr Fewster says it is difficult to attribute these and other improvements to any one initiative, but he believes the MBA is helping him and his colleagues to think analytically and evaluate their practice.

Citing the example of the surveys the school now carries out to find out what pupils and parents think of it, he says: "We might have done that anyway, but the degree course brings a certain rigour to the process.

"It has helped me understand the importance of collecting and analysing data before suggesting improvements."

SUE HYLAND, who enrolled on the MBA course last September, reached her fourth module while most participants were still on their first.

Mrs Hyland, then one of two deputy heads at Queen's Park High School, an 11-16 comprehensive in Blackburn, Lancashire, has taken Open University courses in the past. She enjoyed the OU summer schools but has no complaints about the lack of contact with other students on the Leicester University programme.

"I tend to work on my own and I applied knowing what to expect," she says. "The flexibility suits me."

Most of her assignments so far related to her work as deputy head with responsibility for the curriculum. She has talked to heads of other schools about development planning. She asked pupils to describe their ideal school day, and planned to consider their comments when she does next year's timetabling.

After less than two years as deputy, Mrs Hyland, who is now acting head, says she took the MBA to become a better informed manager rather than with promotion in mind. But her management project will probably be on headship.

LORRAINE ALLEN's first assignment on the MBA programme - looking at how school managers can motivate staff - recommended that her school, Rawlins Community College in Quorn, Leicestershire, should sign up for Investors in People, the Government-backed scheme to encourage employers to develop their staff. Senior managers at the 14-19 community school, where Ms Allen is cross-curricular co-ordinator, looked into the scheme and Rawlins has now registered its intent to work toward the IIP kitemark.

"One of my conclusions was that we had to address the fact that staff need to feel valued, and given the current climate we thought we could use Investors in People to do that," says Ms Allen, whose assignment also suggested that the school's mentoring system, currently used only with newly qualified teachers, might be extended to all staff.

As well as being useful to the school, Ms Allen's work on motivation is helping her in one of her cross-curricular roles - promoting co-operation across department boundaries.

Working through the Leicester MBA course, she says, is giving her insights into management and helping her come up with ideas which she believes she might not have thought of otherwise.

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