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It is 9am and the Right Rev Peter Hullah, Church of England bishop and principal of Northampton Academy, has just come from the school gates, where he has been welcoming pupils at the start of the day. The academy, which opened in January 2006, replaced and merged the population of two failing schools in the east Midlands town.

“We have had to tackle lateness. But today we actually saw people running to get to school,” says Mr Hullah. “I thought: ‘Crikey!’ But that didn’t happen just with a pronouncement – we had to work with families, demonstrate rewards and punishments.”

Sir Ewan Harper, head of two UK educational trusts, is 'breaking the barriers between public and private' by sending teachers to business school

He is explaining how, to lead an institution going through great change, you need to work relentlessly and at a rapid pace. This definition of leadership was, he says, honed by a recent week-long visit to Harvard Business School, where he was sent by the Academy’s sponsors, the United Learning Trust. He took part in the intensive five-day high potential leadership programme, which was dominated by participants from the commercial world.

Since it was established in 2003, ULT, a rapidly expanding charity, has become the largest single sponsor of academy schools – the government’s flagship education initiative – with 15 of the schools now part of its empire. Like the parent organisation, the United Church Schools Trust, established in 1883, which runs 10 private, fee-charging schools, it is a Christian foundation.

For Sir Ewan Harper, chief executive of both trusts, straddling the two sectors is a deliberate strategy to challenge the culture of maintained schools. Now Sir Ewan is dispatching staff to business school to give them what he sees as a much-needed injection of commercial world dynamism.

“There’s a lot of claptrap about this, but we really are breaking the barriers be­tween public and private,” insists Sir Ewan, whose own business background makes him evangelical about what he calls the realism of commerce. “We are getting our people into an attitude which is, quite frankly, different: most of them will have spent most of their life in education and that’s a sheltered life.”

All 25 headteachers in the two trusts are to be sent to business school within the next three to five years. Some will follow in Mr Hullah’s footsteps and take the elite US route. Meanwhile, 25 middle-ranking staff – heads of department, deputies and future high-flyers – are already taking part in a bespoke MA based on Warwick University Institute of Education’s leadership and innovation course, adapted from courses from Warwick Business School and with input from ULT’s own contacts and supporters in business and industry.

Demand from staff is growing and ULT is considering other UK MBA programmes, but it remains less interested in straight education management courses, says Sir Ewan, because they lack what he sees as the all-important cross-fertilisation with the private sector. Classroom teachers are also being offered pedagogy-orientated postgraduate courses at Sheffield Hallam University.

“It’s quite ambitious,” admits Sir Ewan, who is actively looking for financial help from other sources. “We need to find between £50,000 ($72,000) and £100,000 at least per year, but we are going to have to afford it. We have got to provide a generation of outstanding leaders.”

His vision is to develop such an effective leadership training model for existing personnel that within three to four years half of all appointments to senior positions can be made internally, even as the group of schools grows. Sir Ewan wants to draw on a pool of staff across both trusts imbued with the values of the organisation – Christian in origin but non-denominational – and “exposed to and immersed in” the positive qualities of the private sector, by rubbing shoulders with other business school participants.

For Charlotte Rendle-Short, deputy chief executive, whom the trust sponsored through an MBA at Durham, the great benefit for someone who has moved from school, to university, back into the teaching environment, is this hob-nobbing. “It opens your mind to other ways of thinking. For instance, I didn’t know that engineers were such wonderful problem solvers, and saw how they take this into styles of leadership.”

As a former head now helping run the operation’s small central management team, she believes it is the “no excuses culture” that rubs off most valuably from all the private sector influences on ULT. That and the desire to move at pace – something of a buzzword among Sir Ewan’s senior team and his headteachers.

Mr Hullah arrived on the luxurious Harvard campus in the autumn, nervous about whether he, a churchman and a teacher, would be able to make a contribution in his class of 65, at least half of whom were American and most of whom were midway through business careers: “To begin with I was wondering what I had to bring to the table.” But he found the complementary viewpoints worked well as the small group work intensified, deciding that being outside his comfort zone was all part of the process.

And the lessons learnt were, he insists, adaptable to the task at Northampton, where attendance, exam results and community involvement are being pushed upwards bit by bit. Mr Hullah says he has been able to do this mainly through establishing a high-performing team and setting a clear and distinctive agenda that staff want to follow – both of which he feels were helped by his time at Harvard.

“It reminded me of the need to work at pace to make change happen,” he says, returning inevitably to that buzzword. “And the atmosphere of quality about the Harvard experience, the high-performance culture, made it a first-rate example of how a place of education can welcome people in and display its values, which is what we are trying to do here.”

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