When outsiders talk about children at Annette McGibbon's school, they often say, 'What do you expect?' as they raise their eyebrows cynically. But when you are running a school in Pitsea, Essex, where half the schools are on special measures, Ms McGibbon's expectation of her pupils is more along the lines of "the sky is the limit".
When she took on her first headship at Briscoe infants school six years ago, it had the lowest SATs results in Essex. When she left after five years, scores were above the national average.
Ms McGibbon was one of 19 primary heads invited by Essex to participate in a project drawing on the leadership skills and successes of colleagues who have made significant improvements in pupil achievements, against all odds. Heads from across the county were asked to analyse their leadership and management styles; to share their ideas with each other, as well as with other schools, and to support their deputies' development during past school year.
For Ms McGibbon, who now heads a new school, it was a journey of discovery into her own practice and an affirmation of her strengths. "So many of us said, 'I'm not clever, I'm not an intellectual', but we discovered that we were all 'enablers'. By reflecting on what we did and through sharing our ideas with others, we realised that what we are all good at is raising the self-esteem and expectations of staff and pupils." For fellow participant Shirley Scammell of Noak Bridge primary, coming together with other heads to find common threads in leadership skills was a fascinating experience. "Although there were differences in styles and methods, we found that we're all passionate about what we do - almost to the point of obsession - and committed to the notio of school improvement. We're not interested in excuses as to why children don't succeed."
The project, called Heads You Win, was instigated and funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Charitable Trust. It ran in more than 200 primary schools in England and Wales. For Shirley Scammell and Annette McGibbon, participation in the project provided a chance to talk, think and share with others their strategies, views and problems. "I found great humility amongst us. We all thought 'everybody's cleverer than me', but when we thought about why we felt like that, it was clear that in disadvantaged areas like the ones we work in, our achievements are never celebrated."
Reclaiming some of the self-esteem they lost over the years, the Essex heads decided they didn't like the name Heads You Win and changed it to Heads in Essex Leadership Project - or HELP.
Geoff Southworth, professor of education at Reading University, worked with the heads over the year. One indicator of effective management, he says, is how organised the schools are. "Little is left to chance by these heads. Another common thread is how they, to quote the song from the Life of Brian, 'always look on the bright side of life'. It's having what Birmingham director of education Tim Brighouse calls 'unwarranted optimism'."
That optimism was important when the pressures of having to do too much in too little time threatened to overwhelm. Says Professor Southworth: "We saw heads work close to the maximum that's do-able, coping with more and more demands." The time may have come, he concludes, "to look at headship more radically. These headteachers have said there needs to be more free time for teachers and heads to reflect on their work. We need to look at the quality, not the quantity, in terms of the hours people are putting into their work at nights and weekends."