Skip to main content

A head start

John McNally's primary school has been a 'leadership college' for two decades. When teachers leave, they are invariably heading straight for the top. Wendy Wallace goes in search of his secret

While the Government grapples to work out what exactly should be included in a national professional qualification for head-teachers, and what should be the role of a leadership college, one school in Birmingham continues to be a breeding ground for headteachers. John McNally has been a head in the city for 28 years, the past 20 of them at St Bernadette's Roman Catholic primary school in Estelle Morris's Yardley constituency. In that time he has seen 19 of his teaching staff go on to become heads themselves. "He has always believed in pushing staff forwards to more responsible posts should they so wish," says a governor at the 760-pupil, three-form entry primary.

A dozen have gone directly from the school to headships in the area. Most recently, two members of the senior management team left last Christmas to take up deputy headships elsewhere. In the current climate, springing heads and deputies like this might be considered reckless. "Hopefully you can replace quality people with quality people," says Mr McNally. "But over the years it has become more difficult."

So what is the secret of his school for heads? "I love people with energy, who want to get on in life, and they become very obvious in school," he says. "I'm the world's best delegator, but, more than that, it's trust. If governors make good appointments, you can trust and delegate to men and women seeking promotion. I encourage it."

Mr McNally, originally from Northern Ireland, came to England in 1962 to train as a teacher at St Mary's College, Twickenham. Appointed a head at the age of 28 at St Patrick's, another Catholic primary school in Birmingham, he says he was thrown in at the deep end. "For far too long, on August 31 a teacher left the classroom and the next day became a headteacher, with little or no training, especially in the smaller schools."

He is fully behind government initiatives to make training for heads more professional. But at St Bernadette's the size of the school, combined with his positive outlook, means deputies and senior management team members get the opportunity on-site to deal with a range of issues, from dealing with governors to child protection. "I say to my deputies, 'We're co-heads, but I get more money than you'. It's sharing the philosophy, the management and the organisation. They know about pastoral care, about budgeting, about children's progress."

His deputy, Bernadette O'Shea, has been at the school for seven years. "I made what I call a strategic decision. I wanted experience of a three-form entry primary, and the school is well-known for working at a fast pace. We're not a school that sits back," she says.

St Bernadette's is a dynamic place. Teachers have been on exchanges with counterparts in Moscow, Copenhagen, Ireland and Finland. Three went to Chicago over the February half-term. These trips, says the head firmly, are "not jollies, but good experiences for staff. They have to report back to colleagues." Twinned with Newman College, the Catholic teacher training institution in Birmingham, the school has three or four student teachers at any one time.

Active in the National Association of Head Teachers - he is a council member and chair of the primary sector and international committee - Mr McNally spends hours each week mentoring and counselling other heads. "It helps keep you motivated, that little bit of external work," he says, "without neglecting your own school." He was problem-solving for the local authority for years before this became common practice, and has spent time out in other schools, most recently a failing inner-city primary. "It's a matter of lifting staff's chins off the floor, getting parents and children onside. That's only the start of things, of course."

Gordon Fitzpatrick, a lecturer at Birmingham University's school of education, calls in unexpectedly. He is hosting a visit from an education administrator from China, and wants to bring him here. "I wanted him to see a bloody good primary school, John. The man is responsible for an entire country."

Mr McNally's achievements have not gone unrecognised. He has not one but three letters from Estelle Morris on the noticeboard, a photograph of himself smiling from behind a green beer bottle with Mr Blunkett, and his invite to Highgrove - pinned up alongside pupil Paige Chapman's picture of the "Grat Fire of London".

After 20 years at St Bernadette's, two decades of constantly saying goodbye to senior colleagues, how does he manage to stay interested? "I'm still totally motivated," he says. "I was here at seven this morning. It's still the love of children, and the vocation that it is - and part of it is working with super staff. The candle hasn't blown out. And with enough young staff, if you're prepared to listen and have fun with them, this place is permanently on the bubble."

The staff turnover is stimulating, he says. "It keeps me alert, new people coming in; they talk to you, challenge you. They don't come in as subservient people." Staff at St Bernadette's go out together a couple of times a term, another useful management tool, says Mr McNally. "Regular staff nights out are a cure for many things. If there ever are little bits of friction, they're eased there."

Governors insist that senior staff appointees should be practising Catholics. Does his bevy of proteges in the city operate as a mafia? It might seem that way, he admits. "People are aware, when you go to a meeting of heads and find that eight or nine of them were deputies here, yes," he says. "But I leave them to be their own people. I'm as likely to ring them for advice as the other way round."


Grahame Murray, 47, has been head for the past 13 years of the 240-pupil Sacred Heart primary school in Birmingham. He was a deputy head at St Bernadette's with John McNally from 1985 to 1987. "John gives you rope," he says, "he allows you to make mistakes. You're managing the school - but actually you're managing the people. You pick it up from being with him and working with him. You work hard, but you keep your perspective - you have a social life as well." The two have a shared interest in rugby, and keep in touch socially.

"You learn from John also that it's often more effective to be blunt and to the point. He will tell you if he thinks something is rubbish. He emphasises the leadership role of headteachers, and he was ahead of his time in that."

One of Grahame Murray's deputies has gone on to be a head. "There are some people who are quite happy staying in the classroom, perhaps more so now than in my day. Heads and deputies are not seen as particularly glamorous jobs any more, and we do need classroom teachers. But I make sure people are aware of what they need to move on."

Margaret Dance is in her third year as head of St Anne's RC junior and infant school in Birmingham. There are 165 children at the school, with more than 50 per cent on free school meals. She worked with John McNally from 1997 to 1998, when both were seconded to St Joseph's in Nechells, in inner-city Birmingham.

"He was seconded head and I was seconded deputy. It was brilliant working with him. I had a lot of opportunities offered to me and a lot of space to do my own thing. I really felt he valued the experience that I had, and gave me the opportunity to develop it. I had the opportunity to practise being a head, without actually being a head. It was probably the best training I ever had. It was a whole year of in-service training.

"I learned that sometimes you have to make difficult decisions, and stand by them. St Joseph's and my school are both in difficult areas and you have parents sometimes who can be a little bit challenging. I learned to involve the parents in their children's education, so they understand what is happening. I try to give people the opportunity to develop the skills they have - it's a question of directing people towards their own strengths and interests."

Rob Yates, 37, first encountered John McNally at St Andrew's primary school in Solihull - where he was a pupil. "I have memories of breaking the springs in the back of his car as he took all 11 of us to football matches. He influenced me so much. He was the sort of chap that, as a child, you wouldn't have thought was a teacher."

Head since last September of St Patrick's RC primary in Chelmsley Wood, Solihull, Rob Yates went to St Bernadette's in 1992 as a classroom teacher. He was made PE co-ordinator, then foundation subjects co-ordinator. "With it being such a large school, a lot of people were able to get managerial experience - and he was keen to encourage that. He always had it in mind, that people were transient, and he would support you in your career in any way he could."

Mr Yates went through an inspection at St Bernadette's - with a broken leg. "He very kindly taxied me in." Now a new headteacher himself, John McNally is one of his role models. "You take facets from people you admire. The laid-back aspect of my headship definitely comes from him. He showed that there was life outside school. And I learned from him that, if you've got people with the skills and talents, you should use them. It's delegation, not just to increase the burden but to increase other people's experience."

Julie Collins, 47, head of St Gabriel's primary school in Birmingham, worked with John McNally for seven years at St Bernadette's, five of them as his deputy. "John very much appreciates people who he perceives are going to be good at the job he wants doing. He keeps hold of the reins, but he allows you to be innovative, and take responsibility. He trusts you. So when you go on to be a head yourself, it's almost like a second headship."

In the four-and-a-half years of her own headship, three colleagues have gone on to be heads and two deputies. "Some of it's good luck and some good management. I don't work the way John works but I did learn a lot from him - mainly by being allowed to do things. His great strength as a manager is that he recognises people's capacity, knows what they can do - and then lets them do it."

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you