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The business of headship

MARY MARSH, 50, has been head of Holland Park School in London's Kensington Chelsea for two years. It is an LEA-controlled comprehensive with 1,440 pupils and 100 teachers.

Did you always want to be a head?

No. After I graduated I didn't even know I wanted to be a teacher. All I was certain about was that I didn't want to be a doctor like my parents and grandparents. I enjoyed my geography degree but have always been fascinated by languages.

I'd just got married and my husband was expecting to be posted abroad, so I thought an English as a second language qualification would be useful. The problem was no one would accept me for training as I didn't have any experience abroad. I tried to get some experience working in Luton but could only get a job based on my degree so ended up teaching geography which, to my surprise, I found I loved.

As it turned out we never went abroad and after a year I became head of department at St Christopher in Letchworth, an all-age independent school. This experience made me rethink my approach to education - it was very student-centred.

I then took eight years out, having and looking after my four sons and did part-time work when I could. When my youngest child was two-weeks-old, I was appointed deputy head of St Christopher. Being the deputy in a small school is excellent preparation for headship, because you get the opportunity to do everything.

I also did a diploma at Hatfield Polytechnic and an MBA at the London Business School - I wanted the opportunity to see things in a wide context and I wanted a rigorous management qualification which included accountancy, economics and business strategy.

I think it's a pity that the Teacher Training Agency plans do not include an opportunity to train with other managers. There are huge parallels with chief executives in other organisations and we could all learn from each other.

Within six months of getting the MBA I became head of Queens' School in Watford.

HOW IS YOUR second headship DIFFERENT from your first?

The context has changed. In my first headship I had to create the agenda, but now you have to be ready to respond more sharply. Even though I knew a lot more when I started this job, I never stop learning.

The pressure from inspection by the LEA and OFSTED are much greater than I've experienced anywhere else - and I don't think it's always productive.

How would you describe your style of headship?

Open. Direct. Judging the right pace is the most difficult thing of all. Knowing when to push and when to back off, when to give a strong lead and when to support. I believe in creating an environment where there are opportunities for other people to grow. It is very rewarding when people you work with get promotion and move on.

What do you gain from your governors?

The governing body here makes a very important contribution to the school but I think what is expected of unpaid volunteers is unrealistic.

What do you gain from your LEA?

I am pleased to be back working in an LEA. My last school went grant-maintained in order to remain comprehensive. I value sharing the responsibility of management.

What are the most important aspects of a head's job?

The extent to which you energise everyone to put learning at the top of the agenda. Being the person who pushes, pulls, stops, starts and mediates the impact of influences outside school.

What do you enjoy?

Making things happen. The reward of knowing you've made a contribution and can see a significant difference because of it. There is a constant source of reward watching young people develop and sharing their pleasure in the things they've achieved. Only in secondary schools do you get real engagement with young adults. They make extraordinary progress between the ages of 11 to 18.

What don't you enjoy?

Having to say to some students that they cannot stay here when they have been permanently excluded.

What are the most difficult things you do?

Having to confront other people with things that aren't going right and trying to do it in a way that helps people accept it and be able to grow through it.

Whowhat most influenced you in your approach?

Some poor role models taught me how not to do things. More positive models are Charles Handy who taught me at the business school. He has a great ability to write enlightening common sense. I take bits from all sorts of places: from the leadership secrets of Attila the Hun and Peter Druker to educational thinkers and academics including Peter Mortimore and David Reynolds. Also, I believe that aspects of the way you seek to work are profoundly part of who and what you are, which is why leadership style is so different with different people but can be equally successful.

What was different from what you expected?

For my first headship I thought going to a large school from a small one was going to be much more difficult than it turned out to be and was surprised how similar the dynamics were. This time I was surprised by three things. First, the time I invested in establishing good working relationships with the governing body, the LEA and my senior team. It is very important to get that right. Second, how much good work was going on here that no one outside the school seemed to know about. The fact that the exam results have recently increased is due to work that was started a long while before I came. Third, the media obsession with my appointment. The job apparently had the highest published salary range - which was Pounds 62,000 at the top end - but there are plenty of salaries higher than mine that are not published.

What keeps you sane?

Swimming before 7am in the school pool and my family.

Who are your heroes?

Andrew Likierman who was a professor at the London Business School and is now seconded to the Treasury, because of the way he presents things, his insights and the way he engages with people. He ran the first business ethics course which gave me a powerful opportunity to reflect on moral issues. And Robert Wilson, who was chief adviser in Hertfordshire and a very important influence in developing my view of education.

If you were Secretary of State for Education?

I'd make sure that the arts were part of the core curriculum. They are the key to learning and growth, to knowing who you are, being sensitive to other people and knowing how to share things.

How would you like to be remembered?

Having made a difference and increased the opportunities for other people.

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