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We simply mind our business

One crisis after another spurred the new principal of a large secondary to take an entrepreneurial approach to education and associated services, Michael Shaw reports. Photographs: Lorne CampbellGuzelian

THE KITCHEN staff's faces fell as they opened the cardboard box. It contained sausages. Again. All the recent deliveries of fresh food to South Hunsley school had consisted of nothing but sausages.

They called in Chris Abbott to see for herself. The headteacher of the large comprehensive on the outskirts of Hull was in the canteen on lunch duty.

"It was just bizarre," she recalls. "Were we supposed to serve sausages with sausages on sausages?"

Ms Abbott was aware the catering company was in crisis as it had not paid its staff the week before. A week later the firm, which supplied meals for schools across the East Riding of Yorkshire, went bust.

She quickly decided there was only one option if the school was going to provide hot meals for nearly 2,000 pupils: it would have to set up its own catering business.

Only a few months before, the cleaning company employed by the school had also gone bust. For a brief period Ms Abbott was left cleaning the school herself.

"I remember all the pupils tramping in with muddy shoes after a fire alarm and I was standing there with the vacuum cleaner," she says.

So Ms Abbott set up a cleaning company, hiring workers from one of Hull's toughest estates, who are bussed out to the school each day.

When the sausage incident occurred Ms Abbott had been head at South Hunsley for less than a year. She had joined in 2002 after the sudden death of its previous head.

Although it had a good reputation and a middle-class intake, it suffered from under-funding and had the worst buildings in the East Riding, an area notorious for its crumbling schools.

Now, as well as heading the school, the 46-year-old Mancunian oversees four businesses: the catering company, the cleaning company, a training business and a sports and leisure complex. Each has a separate manager and tough financial targets to make them self-funding, and sixth-formers are employed in the sports and catering side.

Ms Abbott's drive to bring a business approach to the world of education is not one which may be appreciated by some traditionalists. In a seminar at a headteachers' conference, she admitted that she thought a few of her colleagues would be horrified.

"Some of you are going to think I'm the antichrist," she said, before explaining how South Hunsley's various companies worked.

Ms Abbott's first brush with commerce came at her previous school, Ralph Thoresby High in Leeds, which was built in a complex with various shops, a pub and a large supermarket. "If I ever needed to get hold of any of my staff during break, it was easiest to put a message over the Tannoy in Asda," she recalls.

When she moved to South Hunsley school, in Melton, she realised she needed to raise extra cash quickly to fix its poor buildings and facilities. To achieve this, she went "badge hunting" and as a result the school has succeeded in raising about pound;10 million for building projects from sources including the Basic Need fund, the New Opportunities Fund, the Football Foundation and a busy parent teacher association, which arranged a profitable series of classical music concerts.

The money went towards revamping the site, constructing a life-long learning centre, with rooms that can be hired out for training, and a sports centre with a state-of-the-art gym, dance studio, swimming pool and climbing wall.

The school also gained specialist technology and engineering status.

The turnaround in the school's fortunes was further helped by an accident in which a physics teacher clipped a pupil with his car's wing mirror. Thankfully, the student was not injured, but the incident triggered a visit by a health and safety inspector, who threatened to close the school unless the car park was rebuilt.

Ms Abbott could not hide her delight from the inspector, as she realised it would mean guaranteed extra funding from the local authority. "I invited him in for a cup of tea," she says. "I don't think that's usually the reaction he gets."

She insists that the primary reason for setting up the four businesses is to have control over them and improve the quality of services for the pupils without biting into the school's tight budget.

"It's the exact opposite of a private finance initiative," Ms Abbott says. "We're in control.

"I'd rather go into partnership with Asda than get involved in PFI because I know what they want."

The school has 140 associate staff, including the cleaners, outnumbering its 100 teaching staff and allowing it to be open all year round.

Ms Abbott does not think hers is the only school with this balance of staff, although it has taken workforce remodelling far more seriously than most. All of its heads of year are non-teachers, although one is a former teacher. Pupils can find them at desks positioned around the school and parents can telephone them.

John McDonald, who is in charge of the sports centre, has persuaded 1,000 people to join the gym in its first year and professional football teams, including Leeds United and Hull City, pay to use its all-weather pitch. But he knows he needs to do more.

"There's a five star hotel with a gym down the road and we've got to offer better than them," he says.

It will still be some years before the sports centre breaks even, but profit from the catering and training businesses has paid for the school to fit projectors in all its maths, science and English classrooms. The businesses have already hosted several conferences and are preparing to provide services for other schools and colleges, as well as children's parties and weddings.

Most of the school's sixth formers have been employed by the school's sports centre and catering company, which pay around pound;8.50 an hour. Ms Abbott says that by paying them more than they would get elsewhere, she can ensure the teenagers do not work beyond the recommended 12 hours a week and distract themselves from studying. She can also put pressure on those who are falling behind academically by threatening their part-time jobs if they don't study, she says.

Mr McDonald said the pupils were keen to receive training in skills such as life-saving and coaching, which they could use in other jobs. He said that the teenagers were "on a par, if not better" than adult employees in gyms where he had previously worked.

South Hunsley's other key connection with the world of business is its partnership with BAE Systems, the largest private business in the area. It employs many of the pupils' parents, producing military aircraft including Harriers, Hawk jets and Nimrods.

Ms Abbott says BAE Systems has been highly supportive to the school and helped make its engineering specialism more than just a title. The company works with South Hunsley's pupils from their final year at its feeder primary schools up to A-level, allowing dozens to do work experience and GCSE projects at its Brough site. For the past two years students have been designing small remote controlled planes for taking digital aerial photographs.

The school's business acumen appears to have infected the pupils. One pair recently took photographs to illustrate South Hunsley's business development plan. When Mrs Abbott said she liked them so much she wanted to reuse them, the pair pointed out they were copyright and demanded a reprinting fee.

"They're a cheeky lot, but they're getting entrepreneurial," she smiles.

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