MBAs: Tailor-made for education: As the role of head teachers changes, Liz Heron reports on a degree course specifically designed to equip them with management skills

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The role of the head teacher is changing. Until recently, a head teacher's job involved what the title suggests: leading and motivating a team of teachers; overseeing the curriculum and discipline and representing the school to the outside world.

But the introduction of local management of schools has added a range of new responsibilities, including budget planning; hiring and firing staff; discretion over teachers' pay and provision of management structures for governors, to the traditional duties of heads. And with the new responsibilities comes a need for new expertise - for example, in order to come up with a sound recruitment policy, heads need to be au fait with employment and equal opportunities legislation. In recognition of the change, three universities, South Bank, Nottingham and Keele, have set up Masters of Business Administration degrees in Education, aimed at equipping senior teachers with managerial skills. South Bank University was the first to mount the degree, which it offers on a part-time basis over three years, and this year turned out its first group of MBA in Education graduates.

The degree is the brainchild of Baroness Pauline Perry, until recently vice chancellor of South Bank University, who saw that heads would need more training to cope with local management of schools and set out to provide for them by commissioning Michael Henley, an educational researcher and retired chief education officer, to design an MBA around the needs of senior teachers. Mr Henley came up with a course that covers legal aspects of education and curriculum management, as well as five areas drawn from the traditional MBA: management skills; human resource management; financial management; marketing and strategy. The course is highly practical and every topic is grounded in school experience. 'The particular distinction of the MBA is that it requires people to base their assignments on workplace experience,' he says.

In their final year students have to produce a substantial dissertation which must also focus on a real-life issue from the student's school or department. Mr Henley says that it is unusual to apply the theories of marketing and strategy in education but that they have a lot to offer schools and colleges.

'Marketing ideas enable teachers to look at what their school is doing to serve pupils and parents and market research techniques enable teachers to recognise the aspirations of pupils and parents and produce curriculum changes that are welcomed by them,' he says.

This strategy could help schools and colleges compare their provision of courses today with projections of employment opportunities in five years time, so that they could try to provide pupils with skills and qualifications that would then be in demand. 'What a school does about changing patterns in male-female relationships or how it responds to a changing ethnic profile in its catchment population are also strategic issues,' Mr Henley says.

Students of the South Bank MBA in Education include head teachers, deputy heads, heads of department, local education authority officers, inspectors, careers officers, college lecturers and even a few university lecturers. Most students pay their own fees, which total pounds 3,600.

Michael Bulpitt, head of upper school at Northbrook Church of England School in Lewisham, south London, took the course to improve his prospects of promotion and used the dissertation to directly address some of the problems in his present job.

He looked at how overlapping pastoral and academic duties - the same person being head of year and head of a department for example - could cause stress among 'middle managers' in small schools and recommended that both teaching and pastoral care be reorganised into a single-house system, with more pastoral duties devolved to teachers. Mr Bulpitt's head teacher plans to act on his report in the medium term and some of his other assignments have already been implemented.

'It has done an awful lot for my standing in the school. There were many occasions when I was ahead of the senior managers,' he says. Another big advantage of the course was the opportunity for 'very open, frank and supportive discussion with colleagues' about educational issues.

But he says 'the cruncher' is that the degree has not yet helped in his quest for a deputy headship, although he has obtained a job as co-ordinator of a truancy project in which he will be able to further develop the research skills he acquired on the MBA.

Rosaline Barrett, head of science at William Ellis School, Highgate, north London, runs the largest budget in her school and took the MBA because she wants to find out more about management techniques. 'I found it very stimulating and talking with fellow students who were heads, deputies and inspectors gave me much more insight into whole school processes and Government policies,' she says. But she found that as head of department she was too tied down with duties to find time to conduct the interviews she needed to make as part of her study of the appraisal of head teachers in another borough. 'I think the course is tailored to the needs of heads and deputies and everything I had to do to adapt it to my own situation has made me feel disadvantaged,' she says.

She also believes it will take some time before the MBA is accepted in the education world. 'I have been going to interviews for deputy headships and somebody actually advised me not to mention on the form that I was doing an MBA. Most heads only have a first degree,' Ms Barrett says.

However, for David Anderson, a former senior inspector with the London borough of Sutton, the MBA has already paid off in terms of career advancement. Mr Anderson went to a presentation on the degree at South Bank University in order to pass on information to head teachers but ended up enrolling himself. His former post has since been abolished and he is now head of secondary and further education services at Sutton, drawing on his new management skills. 'I couldn't have made the transition as easily as I have without having done the MBA,' he says.