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The Interview - 'It's like juggling on a unicycle'

Gail Norrie is deputy head of Inscape House, Cheadle, a special school for children with autistic spectrum disorders. It has 50 pupils aged five to 16 and is accredited by the National Autistic Society.

What is the best thing about teaching?

I love the buzz that hits me as I'm walking through school. It's an almost tangible feeling of energy and enthusiasm. It's the sound of our pupils doing things that some people think they couldn't or wouldn't be able to do. Our pupils may have tremendous difficulties to overcome, but we believe their opportunities won't be limited as long as we have the vision and innovation to apply a range of staff skill and experience to make this possible. The thinking is different here. Expectations and aspirations are high.

Describe a typical day for your pupils

Key stage 2 classes are working with a celebrity chef as part of our moves to enhance the food technology curriculum. In KS3 they are in workshops with puppeteers, musicians and drama. In KS4, the school council is planning a visit to Westminster to raise awareness of the Autism Bill.

How did you get into teaching?

I trained as a PE teacher in Edinburgh, before starting work in a Manchester high school in 1985. I taught PE and dance, and loved it. I've never forgotten the mixture of fear and excitement before my first lesson as a teacher. I still get a thrill when I teach now.

Why did you move into special needs teaching?

When I started teaching, the tendency was for PE staff to have the more challenging classes for their tutor group, and it was the pastoral role that led to my first career change. The pupils in my form class were often in trouble, but I think they had different kinds of learning difficulties that at that time weren't really addressed. They were good kids, and it became obvious to me that they were getting a raw deal. There were some brilliant staff at North Manchester High School for Girls, who were developing alternative curriculum courses, and that inspired me to further study, leading eventually to me moving into special education.

I worked in a variety of schools, teaching young people with a range of difficulties and not particularly helpful labels. I've taught children who were dealing with a combination of learning difficulties and difficult home environments that would leave most adults floundering, and for whom it's an achievement to make it to school.

Moving into special education was a learning curve. Special schools had moved from the auspices of health to education, so we were developing initiatives. Special education was reorganised into primary and secondary phases in 1997. I became a head of department and later assistant head at secondary for pupils with severe learning difficulties.

Who inspired you?

The headteacher at Piper Hill High School in Manchester, Jenny Andrews, was outstanding and had a profound effect on me professionally and personally. I'm sure my approaches to leadership and management are based on the values she promoted.

What is leadership and what makes a leader?

To be in a position of leadership, to guide and shape school improvement and to have the respect of your colleagues who are the people who turn those strategies into reality is a privilege. It's vital to remember that, especially in the maelstrom of organisational pragmatics and practicalities. I'm sure a lot of deputies will identify with the feeling you have on some days that you're trying to keep plates spinning, while juggling soot. On a unicycle. With a puncture.

How do you rate yourself as a leader?

At first, I was pretty self-centred, but that was more about my own insecurities and needing to be seen as good at the job. Consequently, I made some real howlers. But I've learnt from those mistakes and I look at leadership differently now.

When I'm thinking about school practice, trying to imagine what progress would look like, I try to create a picture in my head of what would be happening instead. In the past, I've generally been front and centre in those pictures, but I've noticed that when I do that now, I'm usually not in the frame at all. I must be off to the side somewhere, collaborating in some strategic action plan.

How are children with special needs viewed?

Society at large is more responsive to appreciating other learning difficulties, but it really isn't autism friendly. A lot of young people who have these difficulties aren't diagnosed until their late teens or early adult life, by which time at best they will have faced traumatic school experiences, or ended up with a criminal record.

At worst, the accompanying depression may have led them to take their own lives. The suicide rate among this group of young people is shocking, as they face incredible barriers to achieving anything approaching a fulfilling adult life. I hope these barriers won't always be insurmountable.

What is the purpose of education?

It's about levelling the playing field and giving everybody the chance to do as well as they can. It's about helping people see there are possibilities for them beyond what they may have been led to expect, and helping them achieve those goals. At every point in my career I have had people around me to keep me hopeful in the vision that we can and do make a difference


2008- Deputy head, Inscape House, Cheadle, Stockport

1998-2008 Teacher and head of science, Piper Hill High School, Manchester

1989-1998 Science co-ordinator TVEI co-ordinator, Crosby MeadowCamberwell Park schools, Manchester

1985-1989 PE and dance teacher, North Manchester High School for Girls

1980-1984 BEd, Dunfermline College of Physical Education, Edinburgh.

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