They set their own agendas, induce staff to perform to high standards and fight for social justice. Above all, they get results, turning round sink schools. A detailed study has tried to discover the secrets of the 'breakthrough heads'. Simon Midgley talked to three of them.

When Preet Sahota became head of West Heath junior school near the Longbridge car plant in south Birmingham four years ago, he did not realise quite how badly the school was performing.

Results for key stage 2 (upper juniors) were poor, the buildings were decaying, there was in-fighting among staff, numbers were falling, parents'

complaints were ignored, and children were being left unattended in classrooms.

Today it's a different story. Results have been transformed - from 42 per cent to 77.8 per cent level 4s in English, 39 to 69 per cent in maths, and 43 to 86 per cent in science. The school has received 12 awards for its achievements as well as visits from government ministers and the chief inspector.

Such a turnaround has led to Mr Sahota being the subject of a study by the Hay Group for Heads, Teachers and Industry (HTI) to discover how school bosses make the difference. It looked at 10 high-performing headteachers and marked out five of them as "breakthrough heads" - those who had made a dramatic impact on schools. Breakthrough heads are leaders who question established ways of doing things, those who take risks and who are open to new ideas.

They are strategically adept and can influence and persuade others to achieve their goals. They are good managers of resources and able delegators. But while they delegate freely, they insist on high standards of performance and will not tolerate failure to meet the required standards. In essence, they let their strong culture do the managing for them.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says he would like to see a much wider study of leadership qualities in successful heads.

"In future, we are likely to see more and more heads not being willing to be hidebound by government or LEA policies, but willing instead to stand up for the needs of their schools in the interest of the communities they serve," he says.

The study also found that breakthrough heads believe in principles of social justice, which drives them to raise self-esteem and the aspirations of the greatest number of pupils. They are mostly indifferent to other people's agendas.

At West Heath, Mr Sahota canvassed those in the community. He listened to what people thought was wrong and then drew up a new school development plan. "I wanted a school that would be very different. An unschool-like school," he says. "I wanted it to be at the cutting edge of innovation."

He hired four freelance consultants to help improve the quality of teaching. One key role he set up was that of school effectiveness co-ordinator, the first post of its kind in this country. Maria Aldrige, the woman appointed, but now sadly dead, the victim of cancer, was a former deputy head, literacy consultant and businesswoman. She spent time working with staff, looking at new ways of delivering the literacy hour and improving the school's physical environment.

Mr Sahota appointed team leaders for each year group and set up clear line management roles. He used the Investors in People scheme to develop staff, and introduced a mentoring system to help staff to take responsibility for ensuring consistent standards.

Next, he set up the West Heath walk - pupils walk on the left of corridors and are encouraged to be calm, composed, confident and caring, the 4 Cs. He then reviewed the financial systems, linking the budget to the school development plan. A home-school partnership team was set up to enable parents to get more involved in school life.

Mr Sahota wanted the school to be as modern and unschool-like as possible, and today the building looks more like a futuristic upmarket art gallery than a conventional seat of learning with a state-of-the-art computer room, a literacy centre, an independent learning centre for Year 6 pupils and an interactive library.

Preet Sahota's philosphy is simple: "I am not superman," he says. "Just a head trying to look at the problems in a very positive light. Let's nurture the good and deal with the awful. Let's have the courage to aim high and be bold and daring."

The transformation of the school has been dramatic. In spite of 33 per cent of pupils having free dinners and 33 per cent with special needs, West Heath has improved its scores on PANDA, the performance and assessment index, from three Es to three Bs as well as the huge rise in KS2 results. Meanwhile, the number of pupils on the school roll has risen from 295 to 340.

Last year Mr Sahota, 41, received an award for outstanding achievement in the Public Servants of the Year Awards. Small wonder.

Ms Networker

Sue Folkard changed her mind about headship after a year's placement in industry boosted her confidence to tackle the top job.

She was a successful deputy head in a tough school in Birmingham, but felt she lacked the skills to become a head. Her work had been pastoral: she was used to managing day-to-day conflict and motivating staff, but had no experience of curriculum organisation and timetabling.

After a year spent working for Bass in its human resources team, she realised that she was quite a skilled manager.

"I like a challenge and I thrive on change," she says. "I wanted to see how I would manage in the business environment and was pleasantly surprised. People were surprised by my energy and drive."

Until then, Mrs Folkard had not networked - she left that to the head while she busied herself with the running of the school.

"In industry, I had to sell myself and the company and I became quite good at it. I was surprised by the contacts I could make and the benefits of these to the school.

"I had a fascinating year. It enabled me to benchmark myself and my personal qualities against those of my business colleagues. I was surprised at how transferable my skills were and at how I could be quite a high-profile leader."

Fourteen months ago, Ms Folkard, 51, became head of Hereward community college in Peterborough, a tough 11-18 mixed-sex comprehensive in the most disadvantaged part of town. Today she is a high-performance leader whose impressive achievements have attracted the attention of the researchers compiling the HTI study.

It has not been an easy ride. Many of her 420 pupils have free school meals, special educational needs and come from dysfunctional families.

Since her arrival at the school, Ms Folkard has set up a series of collaborative projects with a range of primary and secondary schools in the local community and linked the town's 14 primary and secondary schools in a pilot project known as Improving the Quality of Education For All, which is run by the University of Nottingham. Academics and other outside trainers are now coaching a cadre of four or five teachers in every school to encourage best practice in teaching and learning.

The reluctant recruit has come a long way.

Mr Dreamseller.

In 1993, when John Williams became headteacher of Pen Y Dre comprehensive in Merthyr Tydfil, a mixed-sex school for 1,200 pupils that serves the most deprived part of the former steel-making town, he aimed to double the school's performance within two years. So he persuaded the community to sign up to his vision.

Mr Williams, a "breakthrough head" from the HTI study, fostered a learning culture that allowed pupils to achieve.

Using strategies including work codes, study weekends, homework clubs and reward systems, Mr Williams and his staff met their targets.

"A lot of this was being driven by the personality and enthusiasm of me, the head," he says. "It was selling dreams. Ithink the determination and commitment of the head is very important.

"You have to believe in this. You have to renew the dream. It's also important to take everybody with you when you make changes. You only have strength in so far as you have the strength of the team around you."

Head, Teachers and Industry businesssecondments place about 40 teachers in England and Wales in commerce from six weeks to a year. Similar programmes run in Scotland. The report on leadership No Barriers, No Boundaries (pound;12.99), is available from HTI. Tel: 0247 641 0104. For more details see www.hti.org.uk

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