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Put your heads together

Aspiring headteachers looking for leadership must learn how to work in a team first. Jill Parkin reports

On a blustery and rainy day in Nottingham a heron flies in and settles by the lake looking for fish in dull waters. At much the same spot I blow in by taxi and settle in the atrium of the National College for School Leadership, looking for leadership.

About 35 aspiring heads are already hard at it in glass offices arranged round two large lounges, on the residential part of the course leading to the National Professional Qualification for Headship.

I am swept up by a ball of energy known as Pam Holland, the residential course director, and so starts a breathless tour of the four tutor groups hard at work on their task: thinking strategically at leadership level to "build the school of the future".

The building is beautiful: eco-friendly with lots of wood and glass and light. I meet the four tutors - they are all ex-heads who did the job without the NPQH. In April 2004 the qualification they are teaching will be compulsory for first-time heads.

"I would have done the job much better with the benefit of NPQH," says tutor Brian Fuller. "I did it successfully for eight or nine years, but it wasn't until I went to work for the National Association of Head Teachers that I began to realise just how much power a head has. Had I known that, I would have been a better head than I was."

An important part of the course, says tutor Martyn Jordan, is the chance to do some "blue-skies thinking". This phrase, along with "thinking out of the box", keeps cropping up like a mantra over the next two days. The brave new world of teaching has a brave new vocabulary.

On the walls of all the glass rooms are posters taken from a Department for Education and Skills' book called National Standards for Headteachers, the backbone of the course. The posters list no fewer than 35 skills which are essential for heads.

"Being a head is a lonely job," says Pam Holland. "They need to develop the habit of self-analysis."

But the aspiring ones are deep in their task of "envisioning". This is interesting, because they have to work as a team. Not many of us would hand-pick a team of would-be leaders. After a while, most groups decide to work in smaller groups of two and three.

Their task is "to envision your ideal school and to: agree the values and vision for your school; appreciate the process involved in implementing the vision through designing a learning and teaching strategy for key stages 2 and 3; consider and plan for some of the resource issues; and plan and deliver a joint presentation to market the school to a named group of stakeholders".

The school the participants have to devise has no cash constraints. Blue skies indeed. In the real world heads are boxed in by all sorts of constraints. But right now their problem is working with each other.

If they were stags, the body language would be all charging and locking antlers. I cannot see much in the way of progress in the first group I visit: some slump at the table, some lean back in "get me out of here" style.

But Pam has seen it all before and assures me a miracle will happen this evening, well in time for the presentation of these ideal schools to role-playing audiences tomorrow morning. "Some of them are avoiding working with each other," she says. "But wait and see. It will happen."

In another group, the outgoing chair raises his voice too much while one woman, red-eyed and red-faced, looks fit to explode. Across the table, one man has his chair pushed as far back from everyone else as it will go.

The turning point in this group is the visit from the chair of governors, a tutor from another group playing the part. She asks a few questions which hit the weakest spots. When she goes, the new chair returns to business as before, but her group suggest they should consider those spots and a plan begins to appear.

Another group, reminded to think strategically, comes up with learning zones, basically regrouping the curriculum under section heads and having Saturday school. They are noticeably happier working out how to manage the plan than they were in drawing it up.

Someone talks about "distributive leadership" and having the "head at the bottom". They want their staff to "facilitate learning rather than being traditional teachers". They decide that in their school, Friday and Saturday morning will be for "enrichment". As I leave this group, someone is suggesting Shakespeare taught in German. Out of the box indeed.

That night over dinner the atmosphere is different. Everyone seems happy and excited. Tomorrow morning they all have to be dressed as if for work to present their school to small audiences acting the part of potential parents, the community, staff and governors.

The next morning the heron is at his post. The lake must be more fruitful than it looks. And as we tour the groups it becomes clear that Pam's miracle has happened.

We sit down with five would-be heads role-playing prospective parents. What follows is a very smooth production. How this has emerged out of yesterday's antler-locking chaos is beyond me.

Five members of the group take it in turns to present one aspect of school life. Then the phrases start to roll. This is to be a "21st century learning community" where "each child becomes the best they can be".

Another group is more or less jargon-free, though less slick. Something goes wrong in the middle of their presentation but they recover well. I have the feeling they like each other or have learned to like each other in the intensity of the last two days.

As the groups come out for a breather, it is a chance to ask the course members what they think. They love the building and being treated as if they matter as much as leaders of industry. They appreciate the chance to network.

There is a final lunch before everyone leaves with much hugging, handshaking and laughter. They have certainly done the networking. Whether they have had as satisfying a time as the heron is another matter.

A week later, a handful of them give me their views (see box).

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