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Heads' leap of faith

Catholic schools need to be imaginative if they are to recruit enough leaders. Susannah Kirkman reports

Catholic schools have the most difficulty recruiting heads, according to the latest research.Yet imaginative training and supportive partnerships are helping schools in the Archdiocese of Birmingham to buck the trend.

Only 2 per cent of secondaries and 3 per cent of primaries in the archdiocese, which encompasses 13 local authorities, are currently recruiting heads, in stark contrast to the national picture. The most recent survey shows that 55 per cent of Catholic secondaries seeking a new head failed to make an appointment, compared with 29 per cent of community schools and 36 per cent of Church of England secondaries.

"The Catholic Education Service needs to follow the example of Birmingham,"

said John Dunford, chief executive of the National Association of School and College Leaders. "It's the Catholic community which knows who the Catholics are, and they need specific encouragement to come forward as leaders."

Professor John Howson, who has monitored staffing difficulties for many years in his annual survey, has accused church authorities of lacking the will to tackle the issues properly.

"Radical solutions may be necessary if faith schools that are so popular with parents are to be able to continue in their present format," he warned.

The main reason for the leadership shortfall is the requirement for heads to be practising Catholics.

Fionnuala Hegarty, head of St John Fisher Catholic high school in Newcastle, Staffordshire, said: "From an already small group of potential leaders, we are drawing from an even tinier group, so we have to 'grow our own'. I see it as part of my role to send my deputies out as headteachers.

As heads, we have a duty to nurture, develop and prepare people to move on to headship."

At Mrs Hegarty's school, 17 staff have benefited from the school's own tailor-made middle management course, Leading from the Middle, designed and led by trainers from the Birmingham archdiocese and Heads into Industry, providers of courses for the National College for School Leadership.

Using an online diagnostic exercise, the teachers have considered their own personal leadership styles and have found tasks within the school which will help them to develop their strengths as managers. Mrs Hegarty and her deputies have also received training so that they can act as "coaches" to their younger colleagues.

"The temptation can be to say, 'I would do this,' but we're using questioning to encourage them to analyse the issue and sort it out themselves," Mrs Hegarty said.

The advantages of the course are two-fold. Staff gain the confidence in their own abilities to consider leadership posts and the school gains middle managers who can offer effective support to heads and deputies.

"It's about strengthening leadership at all levels and encouraging heads to share responsibilities," said Margaret Buck, deputy director of schools in Birmingham archdiocese. "Headteachers are only too willing to think they have to do it all themselves, but the days of being a heroic, lone headteacher galloping to the rescue on a white charger are over."

Leading from the Middle, which is accredited by the NCSL, has been so successful that staff from St John Fisher's feeder primaries and other local Catholic schools are being invited to take part in a second course.

Meanwhile, future heads and deputies are being nurtured by Moving Towards NPQH, a programme devised and led by the archdiocese. The training encourages senior managers to aspire to leadership.

"It has given me the confidence to apply for promotion," said Tracey McGeever, who is currently on the programme. This Easter, she became deputy head of St Mary's primary school in Southam, Warwickshire.

"It is very easy just to stay in your comfort zone," she added. "I was happy where I was and I had to take a leap of faith that I could make a difference as a school leader. You need someone to make you see you can do it."

The course highlights the leadership skills teachers need. Participants also get support from heads and trainers.

"Today we heard a very experienced head talking about what the job involves -the positive aspects as well as the downside," said Ms McGeever, who has recently applied to take the NPQH. "It was really good to talk to a headteacher without feeling you're being judged."

Ms McGeever has also found it helpful to meet other people in the same boat. Networking is a vital element in fostering and sustaining leaders.

Groups of Catholic schools throughout the archdiocese have banded together to form "partnerships", often sharing training and expertise.

"We network as much as we can to bring staff in for professional development," said Eileen Rogan, head of St Gregory Catholic primary school in Stoke-on-Trent. Mrs Rogan chairs the local Catholic primary partnership which includes 11 Stoke schools and four from Staffordshire. Staff from most of the schools have joined an NCSL-accredited programme, Developing the Capacity for Sustained Improvement, aimed at boosting the skills of senior management teams.

The primary partnership also funds one teacher per year from each school to study for the Catholic Certificate of Religious Studies.

Other networking strands involve the four Catholic high schools in Stoke and their feeder primaries, and two Catholic Beacon partnerships.

One spin-off from close inter-school links is the mutual strength heads derive.

"We provide strong support for each other as heads," explained Mrs Rogan.

"We will work together on drafting new policies and action plans, instead of everyone writing their own."

She values the informal back-up from her fellow heads, too. "This could be quite an isolated job, but we always know there's someone on the end of the phone," she said.

NAHTNASCL 2006 Annual Survey of the State of the Labour Market for Senior Staff in Schools in England and Wales

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