Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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AMBA accreditation

Published By: The Independent - 10 Oct 2007

Formal accreditation by an internationally-recognised body is the gold standard for MBA courses. Without it, however good they might be, they remain, essentially, low-key and local. With it, they attract wider attention, win the confidence of students, and are able to take their place in a global galaxy of externally-approved courses.
What accreditation means is that a rigorous external eye has been passed over standards of teaching, research, facilities and programmes. For students, who may well be applying sight-unseen to a school possibly many hundreds or even thousands of miles away, it offers some guarantee that the course does what its promotional literature says that it does. And for institutions it means a chance to measure themselves against the best in the world.
The UK-based Association of MBAs has been accrediting courses since the 1980s and now accredits 139 business schools in 66 countries, with new ones passing scrutiny all the time. This year it has accredited programmes in Sao Paulo and Mexico City, as well as across Europe in France, The Netherlands, Greece, Portugal, Hungary, the Ukraine, and particularly in Russia, where management education is booming and a new £350m superschool is currently being developed outside St Petersburg.
Closer to home, four new UK schools have won AMBA accreditation in recent months, and all are very glad to be there.

Portsmouth

Portsmouth Business School’s MBA has been running since 1988, and before that the university offered a post-graduate diploma in management studies, so it is an institution with long-standing experience of management education. Even so, the school knows that having AMBA accreditation, which it won earlier this year, will make it much more able to compete with other business schools in the region as well as to consolidate its reputation abroad, and it is now working to increase numbers on both the full-time and part-time programmes with active outreach to students overseas, as well as to local companies.
Alan Gilbert, course manager of the MBA executive programme, says students are already willing to travel some distance to take up the course. “We draw students from Poole, London and High Wycombe onto our part-time executive MBA but we’ve probably lost two a three students a year to other schools in the region, like Kingston, because of not having accreditation. However that’s now changing.”
The part-time course attracts a number of participants from the public sector, including health and emergency services managers, but knows it needs to convince more local companies of the advantage to their own organizational development of having their employees take an MBA. At present, too many businesses tend to assume it will just lead to their best people leaving.
On the full-time programme, students come from all over the world, including Iceland, France, Spain and Chile. Local ship-building and Navy connections also mean close links with the Middle East.
Both courses apply an integrated and developmental approach to management skills, ensuring that the core skills which students acquire are applied in real-life situations. A major feature of both courses is the group consulting assignments that all students take part in, helping companies, public institutions and charities address management challenges and develop new directions. Students have worked with a local radio station, and a hospital, as well as with small and medium-sized companies. “We see developing your consulting skills as being part of being an excellent manager,” says Gilbert.
The courses also offer, instead of the usual module options, a series of six-hour master-class sessions. Students have to choose eight, and write reflective learning logs about their experience, and also a 3,000-word assignment drawing on knowledge gained from at least two of the offered areas.
All students also go to Maastricht, for a residential session looking at issues of European business and the European Union.
Other areas of expertise on the staff include international management, risk and crisis management, and workplace bullying and stress.
The business school enjoys a new purpose-built £12m site, and through the university students are offered to use of new library facilities and wide-ranging learner support. Yet fees, the school, points out, remain reasonable, with the executive programme costing £9,500, and the international MBA costing £10,900.
Superintendent Paul Morrison of the Sussex Police says doing an MBA at Portsmouth helped him improve both the efficiency and effectiveness of his department. He also got promoted while doing it. “The MBA questions assumptions and expects you to be able to use facts and research to show why you think A might lead to B. This greater depth brings understanding rather than acceptance of issues at face value alone.”


Sheffield

At present Sheffield only offers a full-time MBA, but is planning to add a part-time executive programme to its stable next year. Management education has been on offer at the university since the 1950s, but MBA accreditation has only been sought recently, following considerable changes in the management school over the past three or four years. Many new appointments are now in place under the dean, Professor Keith Glaister, a leading expert in strategic management.
“Sheffield has always attracted large numbers of students,” says Geoffrey Wood, MBA director, “but AMBA gives us the hallmark of quality. It only took us about six months to get accredited, because we already adhered very closely to AMBA standards. All they wanted from us was for us to flag up the MBA as the leading programme in the business school, to disband the teaching of operations management and to expand the number of optional modules.”
The programme attracts many students from around the world, including Latin America and India, and overseas students make up 90 per cent of all students.
Sheffield and its region offers students the chance to study a vibrant, post-industrial economy, “but, first of all, we offer a good, general education in management,” says Wood. “Lots of MBA programmes don’t do that. Also, the calibre of our research at our school is very high, Students get a lot of both the latest theoretical and applied knowledge, and they get it first hand, not second or third hand. Also, they have to roll up their sleeves and engage with the world. In two modules they work with local businesses.”
Historically Sheffield has been known for its expertise in critical accounting and in human resources, and these remain strengths. The business school also has strong links with the affiliated Institute of Work Psychology. But a new professor in entrepreneurship has increased strength in that field, and a young, strong finance team is raising the profile there.
Fees stand at £I0,300 for EU students and £14,700 for non-EU students, but for this students also get access to all the computing, sporting and library facilities of one of the UK’s top ten universities.
AMBA accreditation means Sheffield is already starting to raise its game. “Yesterday we asked all our new MBA students how many of them were influenced by our AMBA accreditation to come here and 25 per cent said they were,” says Wood.
P Sri Rathan Rathi (sic), a banker in Dubai, describes doing the Sheffield MBA as “the most memorable period of my life! It gave me the feeling of being part of a truly international MBA experience (72 students from 30 plus countries, each with an average of six years work experience from diverse fields). It provided the opportunity and support for me to groom myself to become a global manager prepared to take on any challenge in any industry.”


Swansea

Do a Swansea MBA, says Mark Goode, director of the executive programme, and you will get great value for money.
He points out that both the full-time and the executive programmes offered by Swansea University’s School of Business and Economics offer rigorous and up-to-date courses, in small classes, for reasonable fees, unlike other programmes in the region where students can find themselves lost among hundreds of their peers. In addition, Swansea’s executive programme is the only part-time accredited MBA in Wales.
On this two-year programme, most students are working full-time and come to the university to study over the course of long weekends, once a month, with first and seond year students at the university on different weekends. “Our students might very easily be sent to China for two months, and miss, say, the managing markets weekend, but this allows them the flexibility to catch up.”
The course is relatively new. In its first year it had six students, and it now has 11, but the school is advertising heavily locally, and offering additional perks such as £500-worth of free books, and free parking at the university at weekends to spread the word.
“There doesn’t seem to be any lack of interest, the problems come when people have to find funding,” says Goode. “We have 10 to 12 students waiting to do it, who haven’t got the funding at the moment, but say they will come in two years time.” This despite the fact that, at £9,950 the MBA comes in well below the fees charged by many other business schools.
The one-year, full-time programme has a cohort of just under 40 this year, 90 per cent of them overseas students coming from more than a dozen countries, including China, Sweden and South America. Students study modules such as managing markets, managing people, managing processes and managing finance. They study case studies and do strategic case analysis, and choose from electives that cover subjects such as globalisation, leadership and international marketing. A second part of the course asks that students undertake a substantial piece of project work and turn in a 15,000 word report. Costs are £10,500 for EU students, and £10,870 for overseas students.
To get AMBA accreditation only small tweakings were needed, including increasing the number of contact teaching hours students were given.
The business school makes the most of its setting, offering students an adventure weekend as part of the induction activities and promoting its seaside location. “My office is five minutes from the beach, and how many academics can say that?” says Goode. “I’d say to anyone wanting to come here that they will be taught by world class experts, it’s an amazing area, and it’s very good value for money.”
Former student Qingyun Ma certainly found it so. An experienced manager, she took the MBA is improve her job prospects in China’s dynamic economy, but has been snapped up by the Welsh government to develop links between Wales and the Chongqing region of south west China. “The friendly and open-minded team fostered a free-thinking learning atmosphere, and the respect for students’ opinions definitely developed our confidence,” she says. “Doing the MBA at Swansea University has been a turning point in my career.”

Surrey

Surrey University’s School of Management is the place to go if you want to do an MBA that focuses on up-to-date theory and research. The school is proud that every module it offers is headed by a professor, and that students get a learning experience of real academic rigour.
This is something AMBA inspectors were very complementary about, says Sonia el Kahal Maclean, MBA director. “They thought this a very good idea and meant that students could have confidence that they were going to get quality teaching. It is something that is unlike other universities, but we believe that if you are a practitioner, and you only get teaching from other practitioners, then you are being taught by people who are only really just one jump ahead. And all our faculty members have plenty of experience in industry and as consultants, so our students get all the practical experience and teaching as well.”
Another difference is that part-time students, who do their MBA over two years, come to the university either two evenings a week, or every Saturday during term-time. “We feel that if you do a weekend every month, as many part-time students do, then it is really more like distance learning,” says el Kahal Maclean. “Our students come to the university every week and feel part of things, with lots of teaching time and support.” All students, whether full- or part-time, meet together for a residential weekend – this year focussing on leadership – and visit Reims University to study issues of global business. All students also do an action learning project, in teams of five, working with local businesses or non-profit agencies, “and they always get something out of their comfort zone,” says el Kalil McClean. “We want to stretch them.”
Surrey University, based at Guildford, is well-known as a technological and scientific university, with a high profile in specialist areas such as leisure and tourism. To capitalize on this, the school will, from next autumn, be offering specialist full-time MBAs in retail, tourism and hospitality. Students will take some core programmes alongside mainstream MBA students, with specialist options. Interest in the hospitality programme is already being shown from areas of high tourism, such as Thailand.
Full-time MBA students come to Guildford from all parts of the world, although the proportion of overseas students varies. Last year it was two-thirds of the 25 students on the programme, this year all but one of the 13 students enrolled so far are from abroad. Forty one students are taking the part-time programmes – numbers have shot up since the AMBA accreditation. Both courses cost £15,950.
“I was attracted by the group work,” says Matthew Read, an accounts manager with an air-conditioning company, who has just started as a part-time student. “And a colleague who has just finished recommended it to me.”
For Corinna Heipcke, who works as a placement officer at the University of Roehampton, and who is in her second year, the programme was an obvious choice as she used to work at Surrey University. “I knew it was very reputable, and I have found it very good. My background is in modern languages, so everything I have been learning is very exciting and new.”

Nurture groups
Hilary Wilce
The Independent
October 6, 2007

Imagine a quick, effective, affordable way of helping troubled young children overcome their problems and keep up in school. Imagine the difference it would make to those children’s later lives, and the huge savings it would offer society in terms of the educational and youth support services that would no longer be necessary.
If such a thing exists, surely it would be up and running in every school in the land?
Well it does. It has done for nearly 40 years. But only now is its full potential coming to light.
Nurture groups were first set up in London in the 1970s by an educational psychologist, Marjorie Boxall, who realised that children who arrived in the classroom from stressful and disrupted backgrounds were never going to flourish unless they were given a safe place in school where they could develop and grow. Many of these children, she saw, behaved more like toddlers than young children, and needed to catch up socially and emotionally, before they could cope.
Such groups were taken up enthusiastically at first, but then fell victim to a changing educational climate in which any sort of special schooling came to seen as exclusive, and where schools were swept up in the league table culture. In 1998 there were only 50 nurture groups in the whole of the UK.
Now, though, that is changing fast. Today’s heads and teachers understand better than their predecessors how emotional wellbeing underpins learning. They are also coping with a rising tide of young children with problems. In addition, the Government’s Every Child Matters agenda has turned the spotlight on the power of early intervention, and on the needs of the individual child.
“For a time there was something of a conflict between the achievement culture and the nurturing culture but nurture groups have grown fast over the past five years,” says Jim Rose, director of the Nurture Group Network. “There are at least 1,000, and probably more, in primary schools, mostly in key stage one, although they spread right across the primary range, and there are now also about a hundred in secondary schools.”
In addition, evidence for them is mounting. In Glasgow, which has 58 groups, research findings published earlier this year showed that they have a significant impact not only on attendance and behaviour, but also on academic achievement.
Groups usually cater for 10 to 12 children, picked by careful assessment, who spend part of their day in them for anything from a few months to just over a year before returning full-time to the classroom. They are run by specially-trained teachers and teaching assistants who offer a warm, highly-structured environment where children are encouraged to build their confidence and learn good behaviour. Children get plenty of hugs and chances to play, as well as clear rules, and coaching in such basics as how to share and to have a conversation.
The input is intense, praise and encouragement are constant, but the rewards are high. The London borough of Enfield has had nurture groups since 1981, and now has 13, which it supports with training and other help. A study of them, conducted in the 1990s, showed that 83 per cent of children who had been supported in a nurture group were able to later function in the classroom without additional help, compared to only 55 per cent of children with similar problems who had not had the nurture group experience. “These groups are a proven and powerful way to work with children and their parents,” says nurture group training and liaison officer Gill Buckland, pointing out that the alternatives of providing a child with full-time learning support or a special needs school place can cost anything up to £20,000 a year.
“All the work seems to be suggesting that nurture groups are very effective,” says Paul Cooper, professor of education at Leicester University, who has been evaluating their impact, “and what is really important is that they seem to have a whole school effect. Not only do children in the nurture group improve, but other children in school with similar problems also improve. A properly functioning nurture group will be feeding ideas into the school about how to deal with children, and will offer teachers a much more positive way of thinking about the kind of children who often leave them in despair. “
But groups won’t work if they are imposed on schools by local authorities, he warns. “They have to come from the school, and the role of the head seems to be particularly important.”
Carole Williams, head of Short Wood Primary School, in Telford, is one head who would not be without her nurture group. “It takes six in children from nursery and reception. These children are the kind of children who are unable to negotiate and collaborate, are withdrawn, or find it difficult to communicate. After twelve weeks they are reintegrated, and out of the 36 or so who’ve been in the group since it started only two have not maintained the progress they made in the nurture room, and one of those has a statement (of special educational need) and the other has developmental delay. But that is still not a failure. One of the things about nurture groups is that they allow you to get a statement for a child much more quickly because so much of the preliminary work has already been done. I’d say to any head: do it. It’s so valuable in all sorts of ways. For one thing, parents are encouraged to get involved, and then they are watching how other adults behave towards their children and learning from that.”
Telford and Wrekin local education authority is now planning to support more school nurture groups. “We’ve now got them in seven primary schools and one secondary,” says Eileen Greenaway, a behaviour support teacher. “The beauty of the model is that it’s so flexible. All the children go back into the mainstream, but if one of them is having a bad day in the classroom you can always say, ‘Come and have a snack with us.’ And then they stay a little time, and feel better, and go back. And the results are fantastic. Children sometimes have a dip when they first return full-time to the classroom but after two terms they are usually back on track.”

Alison Turk is a warm, funny, loving and firm teaching assistant whose small group of eight- and nine-year-olds clearly adore her. They laugh when she pulls faces, and respond when she coaxes them to talk. One little boy can barely tear his eyes from her face.
“Now we’ve got some visitors this afternoon,” she says, once the half dozen boys and their two leaders are sitting in a circle “and we’re going to introduce ourselves and tell them what we’re good at.”
Hesitantly the boys all offer that they are good at cartwheels, maths and art. These children are not used to feeling good about anything, and their wary eyes and restless manner show that have many problems to overcome. But they are making progress. “In here,” says Alison Turk, “we share and we care for others, don’t we? We are gentle and we have feelings for other people. And you are all very good at that.”
Two boys act as waiters and pass round juice and biscuits, which are eaten with careful manners and ‘no gulping’, then the talk turns to the techniques that this special room has helped them to develop.
“If you’re upset,” says one, “you can use square breathing. That’s when you breathe in for four, and then you hold it for four, and then you let it out for four, and then you wait for another four. After I do it I feel better.”
Alison Turk says she has watched pupils use it to calm themselves in playground confrontations. “We do a lot of talking about emotions in here.”
Ticehurst and Flimwell Church of England Primary School, set in the rolling green landscape of East Sussex, looks like an idyllic small village school, but like all schools today it takes in a steady minority of children who are too withdrawn or troubled to cope with learning. Two years ago it set up Neptune’s Kingdom, a colourful sea-themed room where such children can go on a regular basis to work in a safe and homely environment on learning basic social and emotional skills, and on building up their confidence and self-esteem. The core group go for several afternoons a week, other small groups less often, but all feel the benefit -- as does everyone in the school.
Deputy head Lisa Hobby says the atmosphere in her classroom has been fundamentally changed by the most disruptive pupils getting support, while head Maggie Sharpe says “One of our boys has been completely transformed.”
Alison Turk points out the nurture group also provides an ideal, informal way of working with parents. “Parents are doing the best they can, but they are often struggling. They see us like friends. I’ve even been rung up in the evening and asked to tell one of my boys that he has to have a bath!” Almost all the children move out of the nurture group after a few terms and back into the classroom, where most are able to settle down to learning and to handle school life.
Yet it has been relatively inexpensive to organise. The room is a former stock room, with furniture from IKEA, and is staffed by two specially trained teaching assistants. Alison Turk, who helped to set it up, also persuaded the local community fund to contribute £500. This summer she won the award for Teaching Assistant of the Year in the South East for her work. “I’ve always veered towards the more challenging children,” she says, giving one a quick hug as he leaves the room. “Once you understand them, it’s easy to work with them.”