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The Interview - 'I have no magic formula'

Sarah Dignasse is head of Plume School in Maldon, Essex. She won the 2006 Royal Air Force Award for secondary headteacher of the year (East of England) and owes her leadership style to a stint leading a Brownie pack.

What is your leadership style?

I am not someone who goes striding out ahead, shouting instructions. I hope I am like the conductor of an orchestra. You have to make sure that the brass section isn't playing too loudly so that the violins are drowned out. I do things in an open way.

Are you a team player?

Leadership should be distributed in such a way that it doesn't all fall around the headteacher but there has to be a clear direction. Distributed leadership is about trust. Once you give people a task you should leave them to get on with it.

What qualities does a successful school leader need?

You need to set a vision and create an atmosphere. You need to understand the importance of teaching and learning. There is a lot of crisis management. You work out a plan and deal with an issue and communicate it to people. You don't have to be academic.

What previous experience best prepared you for headship?

Leading a Brownie pack as brown owl.

How do you get the best out of your staff?

You have to think creatively for your staff. You can't ask teachers to do more and more so you look at how you can support their activities with people who don't necessarily have teaching experience. I'm good at spotting what can be grown. You have to give them every opportunity to develop. I encourage younger teachers' leadership ambitions by giving younger teachers the chance to see how senior staff operate. My first two deputies have become heads and I have assistant heads who want to be heads.

If there is a problem with staff or pupils, how do you deal with it?

Quietly. I hope everyone feels they are treated with dignity. I hope they see me as compassionate. You have to believe that staff come to work in the morning wanting to do a good job but sometimes things get in their way. Part of the role of the leader is to help them through.

Does a head's relationship with a community make a difference?

When I became head here 11 years ago I used to drive to work past groups of children waiting to catch buses to schools in other towns. I was determined to turn Plume into a school that served its local community where parents were happy to send their children. I tried to get to know as many local organisations as I could, from the cricket club to the district council. I've spent many hours grinning and gripping, going to things, being seen so that people get to realise that there is a human face at the school. I've also brought in members of the local community as mentors.

What's your view of Every Child Matters?

We have an extended schools programme and links with primaries. The school is open from 7.30am until 10pm. It's important not to see Every Child Matters as just about social issues. However happy a child is, unless they can achieve to the best of their ability, you are not doing them a service - though I don't think that you can have pupils working well unless they are happy.

The proportion of pupils getting five A*-Cs is up from 37 per cent when you arrived 11 years ago to 60 per cent. How did you do it?

We changed the key stage 4 curriculum by offering some pupils the chance to spend two days in school and splitting the remaining three between the employer and a local college. We've also worked with universities and colleges to persuade more pupils to go on to higher education as part of the Government's Aim Higher scheme.

Do you work long hours?

The school is open until 10pm and I am often here until then. It is my way of doing my work. You don't have to do it.

How do you know if things are working?

I have a good knot of people who come into the office and close the door and say "you need to communicate more about that or you haven't realised the impact of that".

Why did you learn to play the saxophone?

When I became a head I thought I needed to understand learning so I decided to learn something. I sat grade 3 and grade 5 theory exams so I was reminded what it was like to sit an exam.

If you were Schools Secretary for the day, what would you do?

I'd use data to generate questions that led to improvement instead of making judgments on schools.

What's the secret of your success?

I have no magic formula. There is nothing special about the way I run this school.

What's the worst excuse you've ever heard?

A sixth former asked for a car park permit because he didn't like walking in the rain.

Sarah Dignasse is one of 10 heads featured in the National College for School Leadership book 'Turning Heads: Reflections on Leadership'. It is published jointly by NCSL and the Teaching Awards. Download it free from


1997-date: Head, Plume School

1991-1997: Deputy head, Plume School

1988-1991: TVEI co-ordinator, Honywood School in Coggeshall, Essex

1985-1988: Head of year, Honywood

1984-1985: Second in science, Honywood

1980-1984: Science teacher, Queen Elizabeth School in Crediton, Devon.

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