A place for business in education

Education Authority Chief Executive Gavin Boyd draws on his private sector experience in his thinking about the future of schools. He talks to Peter Cheney about how the two sectors can best interact.

“In business, my entire focus was on outcomes,” Gavin Boyd remarks. “It really didn’t matter how well you did your job. What mattered were the outcomes that you achieved from doing your job.”

The Chief Executive of the Education Authority took up his post in April after a long ‘apprenticeship’ during the Review of Public Administration. In a previous career, he was one of three executive directors at Cawoods Group Ltd who raised the £20 million to buy the company from the British Coal Corporation in 1995.

After selling the business four years ago, he led the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) until his appointment as Chief Executive-designate of the Education and Skills Authority in 2007. This was remodelled as the Education Authority in 2014.
His shareholders, he recalls, were “absolutely focused on the returns that they were getting … you just had to deliver.” The public sector is “more focused on inputs rather than outcomes” and he finds that this has very much been the case in education.

Boyd outlines: “We have to focus very much on those outcomes. We also have to think very carefully about how we in the world in education are reacting to changing circumstances.” Boyd is “absolutely delighted” by a successful transition which merged the five education and library boards (and their staff commission) into a single authority. “Our first priority was to make sure there was no interruption of services,” he comments. This was followed by the need to transfer 39,000 staff to the new employer which involved “quite demanding” legal processes.

The Education Authority provides funding to all sectors which receive support from the state and is the employing authority for controlled schools. It also provides support services (e.g. transport) for all state-funded schools.

“A number of people put in an awful lot of work to make sure that that was going to happen,” Boyd remarks. The level of detail included transferring 1,200 school bank accounts into new systems. The authority’s work is overseen by a large board, comprising an independent Chair (Sharon O’Connor) and 20 members nominated by interest groups and political parties. Their induction process has itself been “fairly detailed and comprehensive.”

He fundamentally believes that the private sector should be involved in education policy at a strategic level. This includes not only policy engagement by the CBI, the Institute of Directors and others but also a role for business to continually remind educationalists that the world of work is “very different from what it was 20 years ago.”

Boyd elaborates: “The competition that our young people face is not coming from our near neighbours. It’s coming from the Far East and emerging economies.” Northern Ireland’s education system is ranked close to the international average – a position explained by high performing schools on one hand and continued underachievement on the other. He adds: “One of the impacts of globalisation is to increase competition and we now get competition from people we can’t see, and therefore we’ve got to be prepared to deal with that.”
Separately, he is “really impressed” to see the CCEA launching a GCSE in software system development with the help of the local software sector. This aims to fill skills gaps and also open up routes into new, well-paid jobs.

“We still train too many young people for the traditional professions,” he adds, noting that success is measured by the numbers going on to become doctors, lawyers, accountants, dentists and pharmacists. “Actually, a significant proportion of the young people that we develop in those fields leave. This community is not big enough to support the number of young people that we’re producing for the traditional professions.”

Boyd also wants more businesspeople to get into schools and talk to young people about life in the world of work. This can influence their career choices and can build on the existing provision of work experience.

Fiscal experience
The experience that a business mind-set can bring to a board of governors is needed more than ever. A significant amount of financial autonomy is delegated to schools and the role of the governor is to be “the critical friend” to the principal and other senior leaders.
Schools are required to project their financial needs three years ahead and work within their budgets, which can be up to £9 million in size. The budgetary pressure on the whole system will reach £30 million in this financial year i.e. the actual budget is almost exactly the same as for 2014-2015 in cash terms and does not allow for inflationary pressures.

“Schools have to manage their way through that process,” Boyd states. “Like any business, they have to identify when there’s a ‘downturn’ in the marketplace and, to successfully manage those pressures, they have to be ahead of the cost curve. They need to take decisions preferably just before they are required rather than just after they are required.”
Delays in financial decision-making cause deficits. Experience from the private sector can also help schools to manage human resources issues as and when these arise.

However, he sees no need for direct sponsorship of schools by businesses – akin to England’s academy model – as the ‘marketplace’ of providers is already “pretty crowded” and very few private sector operators “would be big enough even to contemplate doing that.”
Pressed for any room for improvement in the curriculum, Boyd recalls that its last revision (implemented in 2007) sought to shift the balance from acquiring knowledge to developing skills.

He sees a need for a further review but also continuity in many areas of teaching and learning e.g. basic mathematics, literature and languages.

In a world where access to knowledge is changing rapidly – “and indeed what we know is developing rapidly” – it is at least as relevant to develop the skills to access information as it is to “know all the stuff.” Technology has “changed dramatically” even since 2007 “and we need to equip these young people for this rapidly changing world.”

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