business leaders there can be few, if any, more critical issues than the way that we educate the workforce of tomorrow. How the UK approaches education reform over the coming years will determine how successfully it closes the skills gap that threatens our future prosperity.
So any good business leader knows that he or she has an enormous stake in the education system. What they also need to know is that they have an enormous – and enormously rewarding – potential role to play too, as my wife and I have found out through our own experience of being sponsors and governors of Pimlico Academy in London.
Education secretary Michael Gove has rapidly accelerated the academy programme, with over 1,000 now open. What academies and the related “free schools” initiative have in common is that both are free from local government control. They receive their funding directly from central government and are run more autonomously than other schools. Where they differ, essentially, is that while academies are existing schools, free schools are in most cases started from scratch.
Business people can bring a huge amount to academies and free schools as sponsors or governors: the ability to identify issues, make decisions and drive change; the ability to recruit well; the ability to set a strategy, a vision and drive it forward; an instinctive knowledge of what is first rate, as opposed to second or third rate; judgement. And something all too often lacking in our school system – common sense.
And to be a sponsor or a governor, no money is needed, just some time.
At Pimlico we took over a school in 2008 that, by any definition, was failing. It had been in special measures, results were poor, behaviour was bad, and staff and pupil morale was low. There were eight days of strikes in the year before we took over.
Parents were completely disengaged. Indeed, I recall organising a series of meetings in the communities where parents lived. Out of a total of 1,300 pupils, one parent turned up.
We spent a good deal of time recruiting a new principal and appointed Jerry Collins. He has been truly inspirational.
The first challenge was discipline. Gangs wandered the school. Many pupils were surly and scruffy and wouldn’t look you in the eye. Absenteeism was rife. So our leadership team introduced a simple system of rules that are consistently and fairly applied, along with heavy teacher presence in the playground and the corridors at key points in the day.
Students also had nothing to do after school. We now have over 90 clubs, ranging from table tennis to Latin to chess to nail painting.
Teaching is at the heart of our strategy. We have let quite a few teachers go and hired quite a few new ones. We have driven the teaching standards up through training and it is now unacceptable at Pimlico to be a “satisfactory” teacher. If you can’t raise your game to being consistently at least good or better, you should look elsewhere.
The list goes on: very few of our students had ever met anybody considered to be at the top of their profession. So we introduced a speaker programme. Some 11 year olds start school with a reading age of six. So we have a special class for them because there is no point in trying to get them to engage in the curriculum if they can’t read or write. There had been a drift away from core subjects. So we substantially raised the academic content of the curriculum.
Problem; solution. Just like business. But with one crucial difference – nothing my wife or I have ever been involved in has been anywhere near so stimulating and rewarding.
In three years, GCSEs have gone from 36 per cent to 60 per cent A*-C, including English and Maths. We have an outstanding Ofsted rating, happy students and high staff morale. It is a tribute to our staff and students that this has all been possible.
We have over 90 per cent attendance at parents evenings. Why? Because we tell them that if they want to have a child at our school, then that is what we expect of them.
We still have a long way to go. And like any successful business, we are planning to expand: a new primary school, a larger sixth form and possibly even some boarding provision.
The ability to take a hopeless situation and, by applying some straightforward business skills, common sense and positive energy, see children who were tearaways a few years ago now engaged in serious academic study, is truly something special to be involved in.
The CBI, and industry generally, will continue to lobby effectively for an education system that delivers the skills that they require and I am delighted to see that the CBI is now talking about businesses and business people getting much more involved in schools. They should. Lobbying will only take us so far. If we want a workforce that meets our changing needs, it is high time we got our hands dirty.
John Nash is a former chairman of the British Venture Capital Association, co-founder of private equity firm Sovereign Capital and chairman of Future, a charity which supports inner-city projects.
Businesspeople can bring a huge amount to academies and free schools as sponsors