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Power to the Peaple

Appointed to the top job in his mid-thirties, Derek Peaple (pictured) is probably Britain's youngest secondary headteacher. Wendy Wallace charts his rapid rise.

Headteachers are getting older. Maybe it's because governing bodies are becoming ever more wary of taking risks, or maybe it's the increasingly managerial nature of the job. Whatever the reason for the steady rise in the average age of headteachers over recent years, some people are still prepared to buck the trend and reach for the sometimes tarnished prize of headship early on. Derek Peaple, for instance. Five years short of his 40th birthday when he was appointed six months ago, he reckons he is Britain's youngest secondary head.

The talented Mr Peaple, head of the 930-pupil Woodcote high school in Coulsdon, Surrey, was on course for a lucrative career in the City. While still at Oriel College, Oxford, he was recruited by accountancy firm Thompson McClintock - "typical milk round stuff", he says - and worked as a student accountant in the firm's London office for six months. He didn't enjoy it. "I didn't decide I wanted to be a teacher until I became an accountant," he says. "The commercial environment didn't satisfy me. It wasn't what I'd been through education for."

His own positive school experience, and time spent as a volunteer in a special school, convinced him to try teaching instead. So he took himself and his 2.1 degree in modern history off to University College, Swansea, and embarked on a PGCE.

It was, he says, an "absolutely fantastic" experience. "It followed a year which hadn't been professionally satisfying, and there was a strong balance between the practical and the theoretical. I went to a super school - Cefn Saeson comprehensive in Neath - for teaching practice, with the full range of students." With history as his main subject and PE as his second, he got him a broad view. "You see children fulfilling their potential in different ways, different contexts." He was a high-achiever early on: he was named Swansea's top PGCEstudent for 1988.

Just 12 years later, he is relaxing in his bright yellow office, offering chocolate croissants and keeping one eye on the builders still working a few days before the start of term. In post since May, he says headship suits him. "Ilove the job I do. You can plan certain things, but the day is so fluid and varied."

Derek Peaple's positive take on almost everything except accountancy has presumably helped his rapid rise, but it is also down to his love of change. That he looks older than he really is and gives off an air of robust capability must also have smoothed the way. But he denies ever making any Michael Heseltine-style, back-of-an-envelope calculations. "I wanted to be a head from fairly early on, but I didn't plan it step by step."

His first post was in a two-person history department at Gillott's, an 11-16 comprehensive in Henley, Oxfordshire. He stayed just four terms, but describes his head of department there, Pam Syrett, as "inspirational".

In January 1990, he moved to Queen Mary's sixth-form college in Basingstoke, Hampshire, where he managed the GCSE humanities courses and taught A-level history. The head there wanted "good teachers rather than good A-level teachers", he says, which worked to his advantage. "The college environment seemed a very attractive one, although I missed seeing children move through a school. It was challenging to move from never having taught A-level to teaching significant amounts."

As an early centre for the Cambridge history project A-level syllabus and home to a community arts centre, Queen Mary's was a stimulating environment for someone who, like Mr Peaple, enjoys "the communication of enthusiasm, day-to-day interaction with young people, sparking their curiosity".

Less than three years later, he was appointed head of history at Oxsted school in Surrey. He speaks about it with his customary positiveness: "It was a privilege to work in that school, in that department. It was a wonderful department that needed someone just to pull one or two things together, to co-ordinate the excellent work that had gone on."

Oxsted, which now has more than 2,000 pupils, is a high-achieving school cited twice by Her Majesty's inspectors as outstanding. The then headteacher, Roger Coles OBE (who has recently retired), was a key influence, says Derek Peaple. "He knew every child and every member of staff and always had time for them. And he had a total commitment to developing teaching and learning."

Derek Peaple's upward trajectory showed no signs of slowing down at Oxsted - he was made head of the sixth form after just one year, and took on the co-ordination of GNVQ courses and joined the senior management team in September 1996, four years after his arrival at the school. He was made a deputy head two years later.

Was his relative youth a source of discomfort for colleagues? He gives a typically elliptical response. "Short-term success doesn't give you breadth of experience. One has to continue to seek advice, not to pretend you've got the answers." His wife, Jackie, is head of art at Oxsted - they knew each other as children at Little Heath secondary school in Reading, where they were in the same year group.

Terrible events at Oxsted - a fire in the summer of 1998 which caused pound;6 million-worth of damage - added another level to Derek Peaple's management experience. The school lost 25 classrooms two weeks before pupils were due to return, and he and other staff members watched as Roger Coles led from the front. "It was a microcosm of the sort of things you would deal with as head - accommodation, health and safety, staff morale, the impact on students. He had the focus necessary to get things done."

Wary of becoming obsessed with work, Mr Peaple has found time along the way to to cultivate some hinterland. He is a middle-distance runner and a writer of textbooks (British History in Focus: 1850-1918, published by Causeway) and website modules on Chartism. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and acts as a consultant for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Secondary Heads Association.

His brief spell in the City has been useful, even if it has led to an unfortunate tendency to sound at times like an animated annual report. "Exposure to that commercial environment and the pressure under which individuals and teams are working in a client-led environment is no bad experience," he says. "I learned some valuable management skills."

The job at Woodcote high was the first headship he applied for. On the advice of Roger Coles, he raised the issue of age in his application. "I felt it was best that I addressed it - I'd only done the deputy's job for 14 months," he says. "Ithought they might be asking themselves if I had enough experience, but it wasn't mentioned at the interview."

Oversubscribed and in the process of expanding, Woodcote has "potential for further development", and Derek Peaple's plans for the school include going for sports college status and raising already high academic standards. He would like Woodcote to become a beacon school.

How has he been received by colleagues? "The school is poised on the brink of significant development," he says. "Inevitably there will be change. But one of the keys to effective change is to carry people forward together."

Derek Peaple is blase about his own success. He claims to have more ambition for his school than for himself, and he clearly cares about teaching. He also believes there is room for more people like him who might have ended up in business. "The profession hasn't been structured to attract or promote obvious high achievers," he says. "And I'm not sure that pound;2,000 several years down the line is the way to do it. At all levels, there is still scope for upward movement."

Did you reach the top at an early age? Were you younger than Derek Peaple when you became head? Email

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