My name is Brenda... I'm a stressed school boss

Headteachers in one authority are trying group therapy to help them cope with the job. But it's not all touchy-feely, as Jenny Legg finds out.

Group therapy with its connotations of holding hands and sharing intimate problems is not usually associated with headteachers, who are more used to disciplining pupils and balancing complicated budgets.

But a group of stressed primary heads in Kidsgrove, Staffordshire, have turned to each other to work through their problems.

The 10 heads, four of whom are men, meet at least once every half- term to discuss and trouble-shoot problems such as difficult parents, staff redundancies and new government initiatives. They also have a partner teacher who they can meet individually or talk to on the phone.

Alan Stancliffe, head of Reginald Mitchell primary, said: "I thought it would mean holding hands and saying 'Hello, my name is Alan and I have a problem'. But it's very practical. You describe a problem, consider solutions and come to a conclusion. It's not all airy-fairy and flowery."

Kath Wilson, head of Hilltop primary, said: "Heads have to take on a persona that's positive and cheery all the time. It's good to be able to let down the mask and be perfectly honest with someone who knows exactly what you are going through."

She said the sessions, known as "peer supervision", differed from regular heads' meetings because the agenda was specific to their district and individual schools.

Anne-Marie McBlain, who works in the schools as an educational psychologist, introduced the concept of peer supervision last autumn, mimicking a similar system used for educational psychologists.

She said: "I was met with miserable faces wherever I went, and people saying they were going to resign. They all seemed so stressed. I was there to promote health and well-being, but I didn't think I could help them."

Sue Gratton, head of St Saviour's primary, said she would have left her headship post if it were not for the sessions.

"There were so many initiatives, problems with staffing, everyone was pushing so much paperwork. I couldn't handle it," she said. "I would have packed it in if these sessions hadn't started."

She said the local authority provided good support but it was not the same as talking to another headteacher who understood the pressures she was under.

So far the 10 heads have attended a problem-solving training day and are due to attend another on conflict resolution later this term.

Mrs McBlain, who runs the group sessions and organises the workshops, said:

"This kind of thing isn't traditionally my remit, but if you are going to have a healthy school, the person at the top has to be in good order."



Anne-Marie McBlain's tips for stressed heads

* Don't panic. The chances are everyone else is feeling the same.

* Acknowledge what you have already achieved. Don't let one bad day or a stroppy parent write off years of experience.

* Make links with other heads. Look to share ideas and strategies for everything from pupils' projects to administration tasks.

* Make time to meet colleagues and other headteachers to see what is going on in their world. Often you will find it is the same as your own.

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