The assistant county education officer had invited me to have a "conversation" with a few people about my application to become a Primary National Strategy consultant leader. I was spouting forth to him and he was nodding in agreement. Thank God for that. I'm always a little nervous about "conversations".
I had put myself forward because of the work I had done in my own school on collaboration and "distributed leadership". These principles are at the heart of the primary strategy's Leadership Programme.
At the initial meetings for the 20 consultant leaders in Hampshire, we were concerned about the danger of becoming surrogate inspectors. We did not want to be seen to be sitting in judgment on colleagues. These anxieties were quickly dispelled. We were there not as inspectors but as experienced headteachers doing the job on a daily basis, facing similar problems, knowing the processes and difficulties of finding solutions. We would be able to empathise.
Three days' intensive initial training followed. Our coaching skills were honed as we tried out the programme's client-centred consultant methods using our own (occasionally painful) experiences of headship. In groups of three, we each took on a role: one as the client, another as the consultant and the third as an observer. Many of us felt excited and a little nervous about embarking on the real thing. We each had up to four schools to work with over the year.
Map in hand on my first visit, I travelled through unfamiliar territory in more than one sense of the phrase. Would I be able to offer anything useful? Were they willing participants in the programme or had they been press-ganged into it?
Reassuringly, I found that in Hampshire most of the schools invited to join the programme had done so with alacrity. Not surprising, as the support includes five days' supply cover for each member of the leadership team, plus extensive additional support from highly skilled consultants and inspectors. I wasn't the only consultant leader to wonder what could be achieved in my own school with such input.
When I arrived at the school, the head welcomed me warmly and took me on a tour of the building while talking about the improvements already made. I met some of the children, who told me about the work they were engaged in and what they liked about their school. It all helped me to develop a feel for the place and to put the information I was gathering into context.
I had a more detailed conversation in the head's office. I wondered what had been the most pleasing improvement at the school. I asked what had driven this improvement. What was the current focus? How had that choice been made? What, if any, were the blocks to improvement? How could the support be used most effectively? The training proved very useful.
Consultant leaders are not allowed to say "For God's sake, it's obvious: do this!" It isn't, in any case, always obvious and the programme is meant to enable leadership teams to solve their own problems.
Then I got to meet the rest of the leadership team, consisting for this programme of the deputy head and the literacy and numeracy managers. We talked about what distributed leadership might look like and what the end product should be: improved test results and better pupil progress in all years.
The views of the team gave me a further insight into the school and watching their dynamics helped me to consider how best to support them. We talked "blue-skies thinking": what was their picture of the school's future? Where were they in the picture and what were they doing? Some leadership teams (as recommended in my training) will draw these answers.
Yes, they create a picture and then share it with the group, explaining any symbols. Some pictures will be highly literal, others more diagrammatic or symbolic. One leader drew a picture of teachers, parents and children holding hands in a circle to represent partnership, with a timetable in the background showing a more thematic (as opposed to subject-based) curriculum and a newspaper headline trumpeting steadily improving results.
For those teams whose members might find drawing pictures a bit twee, we share ideas on the school's future orally or in writing. We cover issues such as how the school can be improved, the obstacles to this and how the obstacles can be overcome.
On my first visit, the dialogue helped in refining ideas on making improvements. It provided challenges for me, too, as I tried to gear my responses to the needs of the individuals: whether to persuade, cajole or simply be blunt.
The programme is about developing leadership in the school, so that when the staff are back "on their own" they will have the skills, processes and systems to continue to improve. The model suggests that in the absence of the consultant, one of the leadership team takes on the role: focusing on the issues, asking the difficult questions, challenging the status quo and supporting colleagues.
After just one and a half terms, the Leadership Programme is already helping to create a burgeoning professional learning community.
Kevin Harcombe is headteacher at Redlands primary school, Hampshire.
* ABOUT THESE PROGRAMMES
The Leadership Programme aims to strengthen collaborative leadership and to equip leadership teams with a greater understanding of expectations, standards and effective learning and teaching, especially in English and mathematics. More than 1,000 consultant leaders - all practising heads - were trained to work with other schools by the National College for School Leadership and the Primary National Strategy. The Intensifying Support Programme aims to reduce the number of schools where less than half of pupils reach the expected standard (Level 4) in English and maths at the end of key stage 2. The pilot has been running for nearly two years and involves 13 local authorities, each of which has selected 10 schools that fall within this category. In April the pilot is to be extended to 76 authorities and will focus on schools where less than 65 per cent of pupils achieve level 4 in Year 6.