For ambitious young teachers, the road to school leadership can be long and involved. The traditional route involves proving your worth as a classroom teacher, doing a stint as head of department or year manager and studying for additional qualifications in your spare time. But Rachel Hudson, assistant headteacher at Monks' Dyke technology college, in Louth, Lincolnshire, is proof that youth is no barrier to success.
"I've always wanted to teach, and as soon as I started teaching, I knew I wanted to be a head," says the 29-year-old religious education teacher.
"Teaching is hard work, but I love working with children and feeling that I'm making a difference to their lives. I'm good at motivating people and thrive on constant challenge, which is what attracted me to school management."
Mrs Hudson studied for a degree in theology with qualified teacher status at Leeds University, and after one year teaching religious studies at Hillside high school in Bootle, Merseyside, and a year abroad with her husband, started at Monks' Dyke in 1997. Since then, her career has gone from strength to strength. In 2000, she applied to be an advanced skills teacher, which started her on the management ladder. "To be successful, you have to be prepared to take risks," she says. "When I applied to be an AST, there wasn't a great deal of information available and many teachers mistrusted the scheme. But for me, it was worth it; it really improved my confidence."
As an advanced skills teacher, Mrs Hudson worked with local feeder primaries, helping staff to develop schemes of work in religious education and manage the transition between primary and secondary. Encouraged by her experience, she took on the role of key skills co-ordinator, focusing on whole-school literacy and numeracy.
Meanwhile, she had also started an MSc in education management at Lincoln University, studying in the evenings and at weekends. So when her headteacher asked for a teacher to join the school management, shadowing members of the senior management team, Mrs Hudson seized the opportunity.
"It was an excellent chance to gain experience of school management. I knew I'd be able to look at whole-school issues, rather than thinking about my subject in isolation."
One of the greatest challenges of the role was training staff in the key stage 3 literacy and numeracy strategies. "I was serving on the senior management team, but I didn't have a title as such and I was conscious of being young," she explains. "I wanted to pitch the training at a level that was useful, without being patronising."
After 18 months on the management team, Mrs Hudson was ready for a new challenge. But when a vacancy for an assistant head came up, she was hesitant. "At 29, I felt it was a risk applying for a deputy headship.
There were five internal applicants and I was the youngest, so it would have been easy to feel I wasn't in with a chance. But you don't have to know everything to do a job effectively. As long as you're willing to learn from more experienced people, drive and enthusiasm can go a long way. I told myself I had nothing to lose and gave it my best shot."
The risk paid off; following a successful round of interviews, Mrs Hudson was appointed assistant head and started in November 2002. As well as whole-school management of the key stage 3 strategy, her role is chiefly concerned with teaching and learning and she is developing the use of the school intranet as a learning tool. She also manages newly qualified teachers, co-ordinates initial teaching training programmes in partnership with local colleges and universities, organises educational visits and co-ordinates the work of advanced skills teachers.
The prospect of being such a young member of senior management was initially daunting. "I was suddenly in a senior position to more experienced teachers and I wasn't sure how they might react to my leadership. But most of my colleagues have been supportive. I've had to develop my interpersonal skills. You have to be able to persuade people to do things without being forceful, which can be tricky."
As assistant head, Mrs Hudson has most enjoyed developing her pastoral role. She has already set up a school newsletter that details students'
contributions to college life. "I've enjoyed planning and leading assemblies," she says. "After one assembly for Years 11,12 and 13 on friendship, the students broke into spontaneous applause. Moments like that make it all so worthwhile."
She says her own teachers were an inspiration. "The good ones made me want to be as successful as they were, and the bad ones made me determined to make learning more interesting."
Her experience has strengthened her ambition and Mrs Hudson recently signed up for the national professional qualification for headship. She aims to complete her NPQH by 2004 and hopes to be applying for headships in five years' time. If she is successful, it could make her one of the youngest secondary heads in the UK.
She is living proof that young teachers can make it to the top, and for those considering a similar path, she has sound advice. "You have to be honest about your intentions and take opportunities to show you can manage projects. You can start by leading school trips or organising charities, then move on to whole-school initiatives."
Peter Earley, reader in educational management at London University's Institute of Education, agrees that showing you can take on fresh challenges goes a long way. "Your record of professional development needs to show you're exposing yourself to new ideas, so offer to chair a working party or take some responsibility for a whole-school initiative, such as the gifted and talented policy. This will get you noticed."
Studying for a masters degree or additional professional qualification is not crucial, but it can help. "It's tough to teach full time and undertake additional study," explains Mr Earley. "Headteachers recognise this, and if you decide to do it, they may be impressed by your resilience. And part of your masters will involve research, so you could offer to look at an issue relevant to your school."
He advises seeking out a mentor. "Many schools have someone in charge of professional development who can give you advice about your career. You could approach a senior member of staff or ask to shadow the person for a while to gain experience. You have to be confident and take opportunities to develop your skills."
As Rachel Hudson says: "It's all about having the confidence to show people how capable you are. Schools need a balance of experience and enthusiasm.
If you're hard-working and keen to get on, there are always opportunities to shine."
National College for School Leadership, tel: 0870 0011155; www.ncsl.org.uk.
Department for Education and Skills, tel: 0870 000 2288; www.teachernet.gov.uk management