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He's been there and he's here to help

Martin Whittaker reports on the head who became a life coach

John Pritchard seems well-placed to advise stressed-out headteachers on how to achieve a better work-life balance. You only have to look at his own lifestyle.

Until last year he put in a 55-hour working week as head of Hawes Down school in the London borough of Bromley. Today he spends two days a week at home in Kent looking after his baby daughter Phoebe - and for the rest of it he offers coaching to heads and business executives.

Even when he was a head turning around a struggling primary school, he was good at time management. He made a point of spending one day a month working from home.

"I never felt I was stressed as a head," he says. "The emphasis on work-life balance came out of my belief that we actually don't give ourselves enough time to reflect. And we certainly don't give children enough time to reflect on their learning."

Mr Pritchard, aged 40, switched careers a year ago and re-trained as an executive coach so he could spend more time with his family. He turned to coaching after taking the Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers (LPSH), which made him examine his own leadership style.

"Coaching helps build self-confidence, and a belief that you have within you the capacity to overcome challenges and to succeed," he said. "It helps get rid of those nagging doubts and limiting beliefs."

Coaching is something of a growth industry and has become well established in schools. It plays an important role in a number of the National College for School Leadership's programmes, including those for middle managers and the National Professional Qualification for Headship.

Some heads are also calling in external coaches, but the NCSL is keen to encourage schools to develop coaching within their own ranks.

"The key thing is to develop the capability within the school," said Jane Creasy, assistant director of research. "If they do that, then heads are more capable of coaching each other, which of course reduces the cost."

But what is coaching, and how does it differ, for example, from mentoring or support from education service advisers?

The concept can seem somewhat woolly. One definition quoted by NCSL is that "coaching is about unlocking potential to maximise performance - it's about bringing out the best in people."

Gladeana McMahon has appeared on Teachers' TV, helping teachers with time and stress management, and is acknowledged as one the country's top life coaches.

"A mentor is probably someone who has done the job in some way. You go to them because they have been there, done that and got the t-shirt," she says.

"A coach is someone who doesn't necessarily have to come from your background or sector, but who has the skills and coaching models.

"The idea is that the model will help with the structure of the coaching, which is about achieving your full potential within whatever role you have." Mr Pritchard says coaching played a part in helping him and his leadership team to turn his former school around. When he took his first head's post at Hawes Down four years ago, it had been placed in serious weaknesses. Within two years Ofsted declared it a good school, with good overall leadership and management.

He says: "Coaching is a set of tools, skills which can get you from where you are now to where you want to be faster than if you were left alone."

He says men and women tend to respond differently to the concept - women are happier to talk about feelings and emotions, while men can generally find it "touchy-feely".

His sessions take you through five stages: describing what you want to achieve; exploring your options; creating a plan; implementing your plan; and reaching your goal.

He charges pound;55 a session and would typically book in for six sessions, the first of an hour and the rest of 45 to 50 minutes. But, unlike support from an LEA adviser or fellow head, an external coach is completely non-judgemental.

"LEA advisers can be excellent and I was lucky with my three. They were very influential on my career, but that said, they are not impartial."

Another head who did not wish to be named, brought in an external coach to help her resolve personnel issues within her management team. The coaching cost pound;80 an hour, but she said it was money well spent.

"I felt professionally that I needed a critical friend outside the school and education, who would coach and mentor me through a difficult passage,"

she says.

"Professionally I felt I could only move the school on if I could move my own personal leadership style on."

Did it work? "Yes, definitely. I have faced up to some difficult things.

You get unconditional support. You lay yourself wide open and you may say things that you might not want to share.

"This person is there for you, without judgement. It's time really just for you."

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