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The Conversation: Executive headship

David Triggs describes to Geoff Barton the high-profile, troubleshooting reality of being an executive head

Q: In many ways, your career demonstrates the way modern headship has developed. As principal of Greensward College in Hockley, Essex, you developed a reputation for innovation. What kind of things have you achieved there?

A. When I took over as head of Greensward School, as it was then, it had just over 800 pupils. I began by winning the hearts and minds of the staff and the local primary school heads by visiting, interviewing and working with them. We set out to achieve a number of accreditations, beginning with Investors in People and Charter Mark.

Perhaps our most controversial step was to introduce blazers, which caused more consternation with parents than anything else we did.

It all seems a long way off now, but the basics of what I do when I work with a new school were established in those early years.

Q: Tell us about your various roles.

A: I am currently principal and chief executive officer of Greensward College; CEO of Unity City Academy in Middlesbrough and John Bramston School in Witham, Essex; and consultant CEO to Hasmonean High in Barnet, north London.

I am also seconded to the Academies Enterprise Trust, a charitable trust set up by Greensward College to accommodate the development of three academies in Essex. Through this, Greensward federates with schools that are not performing as effectively as they could, sharing our DNA so that others can build capacity to take responsibility for their own improvement.

Q: What does being an executive head or CEO mean in practice?

A: My role is to focus on strategic leadership by offering challenge and support, coaching and development. The leaders of these schools have the responsibility, accountability and, most importantly, the authority to lead their division of their school.

I am very much "working from the shadows" because it is essential that students, staff, parents and other stakeholders see the principalheadteacher as the leader.

There can only be one operational leader of the school and, in my opinion, that has to be the head. While I report to each governing body on the performance, development, standards and direction, the head is the public face of the school.

Q: How do you begin?

A: With a fundamental audit - listening, engaging and analysing what the school's stakeholders are saying. In many walks of life, when an intervention takes place, the turnaround agent spends a significant amount of time with the shop-floor workers, for it is they who are most aware of the challenges facing the organisation.

Once we have determined where the organisation is, we work with the leadership team to design the future, thus keeping to the aim of building the capacity of the team to take responsibility for their own school's continuous and sustainable improvement.

Q: What would happen if you were to reach a different conclusion about what is needed to the substantive head of the school?

A: It is critical that the existing leader is part of the team, helping to identify the school's strengths and weaker aspects. By engaging heads from the start and relying on their skills and knowledge, I have found that we all arrive at the same place at the same time.

This results in some deciding to step aside in order to allow changes to be implemented as quickly and sensitively as possible, while others become agents of change for themselves as well as their schools. I am privileged to have worked with, and learnt from, many outstanding school leaders who have just needed to give themselves permission to move from "good" to "great".

Geoff Barton is head of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

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