Balancing act at the top

Andrea Togher compares her role to unicyling: "You prop yourself up against a wall, then there's the moment when you just have to lean forward and pedal like hell."

And, in a talk to headteachers in Oldham, she took the metaphor a stage further - and brought out her unicyle to demonstrate the point.

The headteacher from Peterborough finds her early, high-level experience of gymnastics has given her many comparisons to life as head of Sacred Heart RC primary. It is a "good school", according to the Office for Standards in Education, where "pupils and adults have high expectations of themselves and each other".

The report says Mrs Togher herself, "provides very good leadership. Her thorough analysis of the needs of the school enables her to give effective guidance and identify areas of strength and weakness."

Her career followed an unusual pattern in that she began in middle schools in 1979, then moved on to secondary as a PE specialist and then to primary, becoming a primary head soon after that. The move from primary to secondary is often difficult to achieve. Why did she do it? "I left secondary because I was asked to teach a range of subjects outside my specialism. I thought that if I was going to end up being a general subjects teacher I might as well go to primary and do it properly."

She started at ground level in primary, working at her present school on supply. Soon, though, she had a temporary contract and then a permanent job as science co-ordinator. Six years ago she became deputy head, and expected to stick there for a while. However, after she had been in the job for one term the headteacher moved on, and after some doubts, and a couple of refusals, she took on the post of acting head. After three terms she successfully applied for the permanent post.

There are particular challenges for both sides when a head has considerably less experience than people he or she is expected to lead. These are magnified when the promotion is internal: "You find yourself leading the people who have shown you the ropes."

Given good relationships, however, the rest of the staff can be a source of generous support - subtle where it needs to be, and tinged with good humour. Thus it was for Andrea Togher. "I never once felt it was a wrong move. The support I had from the staff was incredible."

She teaches regularly. "Many heads say you don't need to teach. I disagree. I don't do it to get a buzz, but because it's important that children, staff and parents see me doing it." Maths is her favourite. "When I was at school I was told so many times that I wasn't good at maths,so now I'm desperate that nobody in my class feels that."

She thinks, though that a head can spend too much time teaching. "Last year I taught for 50 per cent of the time because of budget pressures. It was too much. I just wasn't here for the staff. It's not so much that they want to come and see me all the time, but they like to know that I'm around if they need me."

But what about the paperwork? "You have to know your strengths. I'm not good at paperwork and I have no desire to be a good paperworker. I don't see that headship is about that. I think my strengths lie in interpersonal skills, and I rely heavily on those."

Many, perhaps most, successful heads are, at least on the surface, confident, sure that within broad limits they are on the track which is right for their pupils and colleagues. This gives them the strength, for example, not to become too alarmed by the urgings of higher authority.

Much of her confidence comes, naturally enough, from her Catholic faith - and of course from the lessons she learned in her long career in top class gymnastics, first as a young competitor and then as a coach. The idea that a big and formidable enterprise starts with a small step has its roots there, and when she talks of "the independent reader inYear 6 who has come through many tiny steps to get there", she makes a comparison with watching a gymnast who can do a double back somersault. "It seems amazing, but you go back and it all started perhaps four years before when she was taught to arch her back lying on the mat, and it's progressed in small steps from that."

She started in gymnastics at the age of 11, at Bishop Ullathorne School in Coventry where, as a pupil, she was in a gym club run by John Atkinson, who was in charge of the British Squad. Determined to prove herself (for a time she was the only girl in Atkinson's school gym club) she worked for two years until she made the Under-14 British squad. The work she had to put in has affected her whole approach to life - she believes that determination to succeed is what counts. "You can apply the same principle to headship. If you've got the determination you can learn the tricks - the determination enables you to see through the rubbish and deadlines to what is important."

From the Under-14s, she progressed to the next age group. Sadly, then, her competitive career was cut short by knee problems. "When I was 15 I was in plaster for a year and I never competed again." She took up coaching and judging, continuing with this during her time at Chester College where she trained to teach.

Her life in gymnastics, though, came to a complete stop 12 years ago. It ended, paradoxically enough, because it meant so much to her and was taking up so much time.

Just cutting down was never going to work. She had to put it behind her, in a way that felt like a bereavement. "I just stopped completely. I didn't like to read about it or watch it on television. It had been my life, not my hobby. "

Time and again as she speaks, the metaphor - life, and the job as a gymnastic challenge - comes into play. "Even now, after all this time, when I'm worried or under pressure I can smell the gym as it was when I was learning a new move. You have to go for it and, if you fall, then you've given it your best shot."

Since then she has done some running, and enjoys the kind of activities that she can do with her husband and two boys aged eight and 12 - and that includes juggling - and unicycling.

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