In teaching, an MBA can really boost your career prospects, says Hilary Wilce

Her modest office sits behind high security fencing among the tower blocks and graffiti of Hackney, East London. Many of her clients are barely knee-high to grasshoppers. And her goal is not to turn a profit, but to turn their young lives towards a profitable future.

Her modest office sits behind high security fencing among the tower blocks and graffiti of Hackney, East London. Many of her clients are barely knee-high to grasshoppers. And her goal is not to turn a profit, but to turn their young lives towards a profitable future.

In almost every way, Karen Coulthard is miles from your typical MBA graduate. However after four years' of part-time study, she has achieved just that from Hull University, and is convinced that this business-based qualification will be a terrific help in her challenging job as an inner-city primary school head.

"Everything you learn is entirely relevant, because of the complex role of headship these days," she says. "It's now a highly demanding job, and the level of change is unbelievable. People outside the world of education might think of the job as being something quite low level, but you have to deal with children's education, your staff's development and welfare, very high levels of resources, and how best to access all the help that is available to inner city schools like mine. There's a very high level of strategic thinking needed."

She is not alone. School heads and education managers are increasingly discovering the value of studying their role in a management context and the benefits that can come afterwards. One secondary head of a specialist business and enterprise college found that having the letters MBA after her name greatly helped her in dealings with her local industry sponsors; other heads have discovered that it offers a useful pathway to associated careers.

Karen Coulthard, 52, decided to take her MBA in school leadership after hearing the course recommended by colleagues (although changes at the university mean this precise course is now no longer offered).

"I've been a head since 1987 and when you've been in a post for a long time, what you need is a different perspective. I'd been aware that other heads had done this course and I was really attracted to the idea of doing an MBA. Also it was taught at a centre in London, which made it much easier."

For her, the biggest joy was the opportunity to hear top quality, international speakers, and the framework in which to think critically about crucial educational issues. "We did a lot about the ideas of brain-based learning that have come from Howard Gardner and others. It's very hard to do this on your own, especially when, in the job, the day-to-day often takes over."

Keeping up with the reading, and then delivering her dissertation were real struggles. "It isn't easy to give up your summer holidays to working on something like this." However, she knows her work will be useful. Her dissertation was on schools working together in federations - something that she already does - and she knows that her conclusions will be directly applicable to school developments locally.

"Many of my assumptions were challenged. Take marketing. I suppose I felt because we as a school were oversubscribed I didn't have to worry about it. But now that I've looked at the process, I can see that it is important to know yourself and what you are doing, and then to share it and promote what's happening."

Otherwise, she says, people can too easily make unfounded assumptions. "When you say you work in Hackney you can practically hear the intake of breath. But most schools in the borough are doing a great job of meeting the needs of their children and the world needs to know that."

Soft skills are the buzzword of today's MBA courses, but heads, she points out, already have these in spadefuls. "You have to, when you are working with children, teachers, the community, parents and other agencies over what are often very delicate issues. On the course we had to keep a change diary, where we wrote about critical incidents, and when you record things like this you realise how complex your thinking is, and the way you go about problem-solving. Yet a lot of it you do almost without thinking.

"Another thing the course helped me with is development planning, looking up to 10 years ahead and asking where would we expect to see ourselves. You have to look widely at the context, and be prepared for the way externals are going to change, and be clear about where you want to go."

For some heads, where they want to go is out of education - at least for a time. Stephen Prior, 36, was head of Hillcrest College, an independent school in Zimbabwe for five years until political turmoil made him ready to move on. Now he is doing a full-time MBA at Durham with a view to switching to working for a charity or non-governmental organisation.

"I found that pretty much two thirds of what you do as a head is not directly related to education. It's like being the chief executive of a business, dealing with strategic planning, employee relations, estate management and the political context, so the course is not such a big switch."

However, now halfway through the year-long programme, he can look back on management mistakes he has made in the past. "I tended to go at things like a bull at a gate. I could have done them more sensitively, and with due deference to people's views and experience. What I like abut the programme is not so much what they teach you day-to-day, but the way it gives you new ways of thinking."

Dr Stephen Whitehead, director of Keele University's distance-learning MBA for education professions, one of a handful of such specialist programmes available in the UK, points out that it can be very hard to be a good leader in education, "where a simplistic market model does not prevail", where there are huge pressures and changes, and where people have to understand and accept the limits of their roles. But people from chief education officers to overseas school heads are attracted to the course, and welcome the chance to reflect, and to share views and values.

Karen Coulthard agrees: "It opens up such new horizons. There are now dedicated leadership courses for heads, but these mainly concentrate on the next stage of development. They are more purpose-based, and they don't bring in the research and the critical thinking that I so much enjoyed."