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Head start for women;Career development

One London borough has bucked the national trend and has more female than male secondary headteachers. Kate Myers meets the Newham Nine SECTION:Features NO PHYSICAL FILEIt is never easy for women teachers to reach the top of the promotional ladder, particularly in a secondary school. But Newham is one local authority where they know they stand a fair chance of fulfilling their potential.

The statistics show that nine of the east London borough's 13 secondary schools have female headteachers. There is no such animal as "the typical Newham female head", but these nine do have several things in common:

* Six are between 44 and 46.

* All are from working-class backgrounds where education was deemed important.

* Most were encouraged to go on to higher education, though not always for academic reasons. (One head's mother thought university would be a nice place to meet a doctor.) * All talk about strong female role models.

* Most had fathers who believed they could - and should - do anything they wanted.

* Although some admit to being ambitious, only one planned to be a head.

* All had encouraging mentors.

* All feel supported by the local education authority.

One other factor seemed important. Five had hadadvisory experience, including being an advisory teacher, deputy warden of a teachers' centre, development officer for records of achievement and an LEA adviser and an LEA principal inspector. Another had been a community development worker and a youth worker.

If it's true - as Carolyn Brown, head of Sarah Bonnell School, was told - that men apply for posts when they think they can do 20 per cent of the new job, whereas women apply when the proportion is nearer 80 per cent, experience in the advisory service could be important in providing the "big picture" which gives women confidence in their own abilities. It would also make them realise that they could do the job at least as well as some of the heads they meet.

Four of the Newham women have children and have to consider how to find "quality" time for them. The head of Plashet School, Bushra Nasir, discussed the implications of being a head with her three children before she applied for her job.

Maggie Montgomery had only just become pregnant when she started applying for headships. - her son was four-months-old when she got her job. Now he is two, and helps his mother keep her sanity. Other members of the Newham Nine say they keep sane through mutual support, buying clothes, the occasional glass of wine, visits to a health spa and aromatherapy massages.

As women heads they feel they have to be especially good at the job. Bushra Nasir and Pam Belmour, head of Little Ilford, feel it is even more of a responsibility being black and a head.

For all of them, developing future heads is a priority. One has appointed a few sparky women with less traditional backgrounds and is delighted with the results.

Would they recommend the job? Although they put in long hours, they all love the work and speak about the privilege of working with young people. All say it is vital to keep things in perspective and to be able to laugh at yourself. As Pat Bagshaw puts it, "pompous is not on".

Professor Kate Myers is director of the Professional Development Unit at the University of Keele

* Newham's nine women secondary heads

Pat Bagshaw Woodside (Royal Docks Community School as of 1999)

Pam Belmour Little Ilford School

Carolyn Brown Sarah Bonnell School

Vanessa Wiseman Langdon School Delia Smith St Angela's Convent School Linda

McGowan Lister Community School

Maggie Montgomery EastleaCommunity School

Bushra Nasir Plashet School

Jane Noble Cumberland School

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