Name: Ger Graus
Company: Children's University
Job: Chief executive
Ger Graus is the founding Chief Executive of the Children's University, which launched in 2007. Dutch-born Ger started his career teaching in Norwich, rising through the ranks to focus on languages, advising Manchester City Council and later acting as Director of the much respected Wythenshawe Education Action Zones. Ger now runs the Children's University, which provides 7-14 year olds of all backgrounds and abilities with learning outside school hours.
The Story so far:
• Degree: teaching (Holland)
• Teacher – 5 years (Norwich)
• Teacher, Head of Languages Faculty – 3 years (Hull)
• Member of the National Curriculum Working Group for Modern Foreign Languages
• Language adviser to Manchester City Council – 5 years
• Schools Inspector for Salford City Council – 4 years
• Director of Wythenshawe Education Action Zones – 7 years
• Founding Chief Executive of the Children’s University – Since 2007
Where did it all start?
I grew up in Holland where I did a teaching degree. In Holland back then, you went to University to get a teaching qualification. You qualified and could teach at a certain level. Then if you went back for further qualifications, you could teach at a higher level. Here in the UK people go to University, then get a teaching qualification later if things don’t work out, it’s a shame.
Back then in Holland you chose your vocation and worked hard for it.
When I gained my final qualification in Holland, I started looking for teaching jobs, but there weren’t many vacancies. At the time terms and conditions for teachers were so good, it was a popular profession and there were no vacant positions. I found myself looking further afield and saw a post in Norwich advertised in the Times Educational Supplement. The post was for a one year contract in a fairly good school in the area.
You don't sound Dutch...
I didn’t find switching to English too challenging. Holland is a small country, which is very dependent on other countries, so language is a big necessity. I was also very into the music scene, which was all in English, and Dutch TV is generally in the original with subtitles. So I had learned the language, but also developed my confidence using it, and I didn’t find it too much of a challenge. What was difficult was meeting a group of Geordies not long after I’d moved over, I thought their language was from another planet!
How long did you stay there?
I stayed in Norwich for 5 years. I was very fortunate, it was a great school with some great people and really amazing pupils. The head teacher encouraged staff to move on, for their own benefit and not the school’s.
So you left?
So I left with the encouragement of the head. I was pointed in the right direction and applied for a role as the Head of Faculty at what was then the largest comprehensive school in the country. It was based in Hull on one of the largest council estates in Europe. It was one of the most deprived areas in the country and a huge change from the affluent school in Norwich. While there were 500 children in the entire school in Norwich, there were 500 children in each year group in Hull. I was the head of the language faculty and we were teaching French, German and Spanish to 2000 pupils.
This was a big managerial, organisational, and cultural move.
It focused me much more. I can still recite the register of my class in Norwich off the top of my head. But in Hull, expectations were so low. It still amazes me what we accept as a nation. In Norwich, the attitude from grown-ups was “the sky’s the limit”, but in Hull it was too often a case of “what do you expect from these children?” In terms of management, I believe that if you are teaching children in a tough environment, that’s where you need smaller schools. If you’re teaching 2000 kids you can’t know them all and inevitably you metaphorically lose some.
After three years in Hull I moved to Manchester, after being offered a language job as an Adviser to Manchester City Council. It was very different in Manchester, much more varied, especially in terms of ethnicity, wealth, and culture. With several universities in the city, it wasn't as geographically isolated as Hull was. In Manchester, I was responsible for introducing languages in primary schools, we gained European funding and sent teachers abroad to train.
After 5 years of doing this, a friend moved to a role in Salford, and in a way put me forward for my next job. I wouldn’t say I was headhunted, but it was definitely a job put forward to me. I was working as the Schools Inspector for Salford City Council. I was there for 4 years (from 1996 to 2000), and while I was there, I was charged with introducing the Government’s Excellence in Cities initiative in 1999.
In 2000 I was invited to apply for a job as the director of the two Wythenshawe Education Action Zones, based at Manchester Airport. This was one of the leading proponents of public/private sector partnership in education.
These were the most important working years of my life.
The private sector acts with so much more purpose, so much more quickly, than the public sector. When children need urgent attention, too many committees can get in the way. Here, we could be analytical, then take quick action based on that. We partnered with the private sector for money for initiatives like improving reading.
Consultants can come and go, but we could bridge that gap.
Schools told us they needed management information systems and we helped them get that. Schools approached us and said they needed 700 computers, so we approached Shell who were getting rid of theirs, and very soon we had 11 lorries delivering 700 PCs to 29 schools, all for free. If that had been done through the local authority bureaucracy, it would have taken four years!
So at what point did the Children's University come along?
Children's Universities locally have been around since the 1990s but it was decided to set up a national charity in 2006. I got a phone call to see whether I would be interested in the Children's University and obviously said yes. I started my role, as the founding Chief Executive, on April 16 2007.
That morning, I went to work in my car and we had nothing, no office, not even a paperclip.
I had to find the office, appoint staff, decide on our key principles, everything. In July 2007 we had 9 centres in England. By April 2012 there are 80 centres, reaching up to 100,000 kids, including centres in Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland. Soon more will launch in Malaysia and the Netherlands with further interest from the Republic of Ireland, Japan, Australia and Belgium.
And what's your role?
We only have four members of staff, everything else we broker and pay for. I am in the office on average only 1.5 days per week. The rest of the time I am on the road to new centres, growing existing ones, and attending graduations of our University pupils.
I think to work in education you need to stay in touch with the kids. When papers become more important, you’ve lost that vital link.
My job is incredibly varied. At our annual conference, I will be loading up the car with boxes to set up there. Similarly, later this year I will be delivering the key note speech to the Sunday Times Education Festival. In a small organisation you have no time or capacity for developing any kind of hierarchy.
Opening new centres was hard at first. I literally went round with my briefcase trying to encourage people to get involved. We fund the centre and then they have to prove within a year that they are doing the right thing with it. After about 2 years it started to change. More people know who we are now, so my job is more about responding to demand. Today I’m speaking to someone in Scotland, someone in Newcastle, and someone in Hammersmith & Fulham about starting new centres. It’s nice that people know who we are now. We don’t need to go looking quite as much any more.
Anything you hate?
Report writing is pretty boring. I also hate it when people let us down, sometimes deliberately, which doesn’t happen too often. People can forget that there are kids involved and it’s not just us they’re letting down. I think if there are 5 working days in a week and I have 3 good days, that’s a good week.
I am still excited to attend our graduation ceremonies and meet new people. There isn’t anything I would have done differently.
I was a German teacher and I do a very different job now. The one consistency throughout my career is that I love children. Just always be open minded.
Stop focusing on where it will go and just think about where you want to start.
I think sometimes I get my work life balance wrong but I’m still working on that.
Give me your best advice...
In terms of jobs, there are different types of people. Some people see their career path as a linear, straight line. They might say “in ten years’ time I will be a head teacher”. That’s fine and it works for some people. But just because you don’t do that, it doesn’t mean you have no path at all. The whole process is kind of like using a satellite navigation system.