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Time to go back to school

Mentoring is one of those words - like empowerment, Hogwarts and microscooter - that has gradually slipped into common usage over the past couple of years. Most of us are aware of the benefits that workplace mentoring brings to individuals and organisations, but too few construction industry professionals know about a governmentfunded initiative established to help business leaders and headteachers help each other - by becoming mutual mentors.

Partners in Leadership grew out of a mentoring programme for head teachers established in 1995. More recently, the programme became an integral part of the Department for Education and Employment's Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers. It was initially called Headteacher Mentoring, but was renamed to reflect the fact that it is very much a two-way partnership, with business leaders learning as much as head teachers - if not more.

Business in the Community manages the scheme on behalf of the DfEE and is responsible for the recruitment and briefing of business partners, matching them with headteachers and carrying out monitoring and evaluation of the year-long partnerships - in which partners meet every six weeks.

The scheme has established just over 3,000 partnerships between headteachers and senior managers from industry, and Partners in Leadership is contracted by DfEE to find partners for all the head teachers on its leadership programme - between 2,000 and 3,000 a year.

They represent all types of schools from all over the UK, from large inner city secondary schools with more than 2,000 pupils, to small rural primaries with fewer than 100. Their industry counterparts - generally senior managers with responsibility for personnel, company budgets and/or strategy - represent more than 800 companies, including most of those in the FTSE 100 as well as many smaller firms.

A handful of larger civil engineering firms and several smaller ones are already involved in Partners in Leadership, including Costain, Henry Boot, HGB Construction, Carillion, John Laing, Norwest Holst and WS Atkins, but the ICE would like to see many more. It is planning a presentation to senior members on the subject, says education and careers consultant Yvonne Ryszkowska, and sees the scheme as a great way of raising awareness of civil engineering as a career in schools.

But just how can construction industry professionals help the country's head teachers?

'At a practical level, headteachers have a lot of responsibility for their premises but usually little experience in that area, ' says the programme's director Nigel Purkis, 'but it's really more about management and leadership'. Many headteachers are particularly interested in issues like performance management and the implementation of strategic planning, he says, which are new to schools.

And what are the benefits to business represented by Partners in Leadership?

'In an evaluation we did this summer, business partners actually said they got more out of it than head teachers in terms of personal development, ' Purkis says, 'especially in areas like communications and staff motivation. After all, headteachers can't use money to motivate their staff, and are therefore generally very creative in this area'.

Brian Cousins, a managing quantity surveyor with Henry Boot Management near Sheffield, meets regularly with the headteacher of a local primary school. The partnership is a rewarding one, which enables him to get involved in another part of society and complements his role as a magistrate.

'We've looked at areas where we can assist each other, ' he adds, 'and as well as providing help and advice with the school's electricity supply, I also talk to the children from time to time on the dangers of drug abuse'.

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