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The Conversation: Standing in

After 23 years of headship, Clarissa Williams is taking a year off to be president of the NAHT. Siobhan Lowe, her deputy, seeks her advice on acting up.SL: Taking over as headteacher while you are away will be valuable experience. But why do you think so many women hold back from going for headship and what makes you still like the job so much?

CW: I see many examples of women with the potential to be excellent heads, but they feel deterred. It is possible to bring up a family, have a life and cope with the challenges of headship provided you have the right mindset, are sufficiently determined and organised.

Now many schools are finding it difficult to recruit heads, which is why the National Association of Head Teachers is keen to encourage women to go for the top job, through the Women into School Headship (Wish) scheme.

SL: I'm excited at the prospect of leading the school, but find it daunting. As deputy, I have just dealt with a tricky staffing situation that could easily have gone wrong. It has shaken my confidence and made me think do I really want to be a head? Do you have any advice?

CW: When faced with a challenge of that magnitude, it's wise to take time to think and talk through how you plan to tackle it. I have been able to take a coaching role and you should never feel that you are entirely alone in resolving difficult issues. In the end, you reaffirmed the school ethos. You stood firm, while at the same time being reasonable.

SL: We recently had an Ofsted inspection, but I'm worried about the dreaded self-evaluation process. How do we know that we are "outstanding" and not just "good"? How do we explain our reasoning?

CW: Tell the story honestly and succinctly. Fiction will out. The visit from the school improvement partner demands preparation, as it can rebound on us, especially as they come armed with so much data. We have found it works best when we work together as a team, pooling our knowledge and agreeing the judgment. That strengthens us.

SL: How do you react when a parent makes an allegation that could have a serious impact on a teacher's career?

CW: This is something we all dread because it has to be treated so sensitively. If you get it wrong, then the repercussions are potentially serious. We've found the local authority and professional associations helpful in giving advice and support. Maintaining contact with the parents is vital. The last thing you want is an upset parent threatening you with the media. Ensure there is a thorough investigation to a tight timescale and remember it is an allegation until proven fact. It might be a malicious allegation, which can ruin a colleague's career. On the other hand, you have a duty of responsibility for student safety. You have to be seen to act scrupulously.

SL: How do I establish a good relationship with the governing body?

CW: Start as you mean to go on. The better informed the governors, the less likely they are to interfere. Regular meetings with the chair to a mutually agreed agenda will help, as will email contact to keep them informed about news or out-of-the-ordinary incidents. Circulate concise and informative reports in good time. You or a member of the senior leadership team should be on all committees, providing the professional opinion that they need.

SL: How do I build a strong relationship with the leadership team?

CW: Break some traditions by changing old ways of working. Shared tasks, such as curriculum planning or revising the self-evaluation form, will re-establish their commitment to the school's continuing improvement. Use the performance management review process to reinforce strengths and areas they have highlighted for development. Make clear your expectations and praise good outcomes. Use coaching to let them develop their problem-solving skills. Take time to share a joke and some food as you work. Establish rotas to share the work and allocate enough time to enable them to complete complex tasks.

Clarissa Williams, head of Tolworth Girls' School and Centre for Continuing Education in Surbiton, Surrey, becomes president of the National Association of Head Teachers in May.

Wish is organising a one-day course, Wholehearted for Headship. See for details.

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