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Six safe pairs of hands

Support your staff with headship training and they will support you in return. Martin Whittaker reports

When Anne Clarke's commitments take her away from the helm at Benton Park school, she knows it is in safe hands.

As well as running this successful secondary, she also fills a temporary headship at a nearby special school, and is a tutor on the National Professional Qualification for Headship programme.

But she says her leadership team is more than capable of running Benton Park in her absence. All six members of her senior management team have gained the NPQH. The qualification became mandatory for first-time heads in the English maintained sector on April 1.

"I now have a very experienced team across all areas of the school," says Mrs Clarke. "I don't think there's any aspect of running the school that I couldn't ask them to do."

Benton Park is a mixed 11-18 comprehensive where school standards minister David Miliband was once a pupil. It is in Rawdon, Leeds, and serves an area of suburbs and industrial and commuter villages. Seven per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals.

In 1998 the Office for Standards in Education declared it a good school with no major weaknesses. It later featured in the chief inspector's list of outstanding schools.

Its GCSE results are above average for England and for Leeds. Last year 62 per cent of pupils gained five or more GCSEs at grade A*-C, though the figure has fluctuated between 53 and 69 per cent in the past seven years.

Anne Clarke says the school already had a fine academic record when she became head seven years ago. "I think of it as a genuine comprehensive because we take from homes where the expectations are to get their children to Oxbridge, as well as children from more deprived backgrounds," she says.

But she found Benton Park to be insular, with little relationship with the local education authority. The buildings were in a poor state of repair. She has since overseen improvements to its 1960s buildings worth pound;1.5 million. Benton Park became a technology college in 2000. It has won Sportsmark award and became one of two schools in Leeds to achieve a Charter Mark.

Mrs Clarke says initially she saw the NPQH qualification as a way of improving the professional development and career chances of her deputies and assistant heads. She says the benefits to the school came second. "It is a very good qualification," she says. "There's a lot of content to it.

It covers all the aspects of headship - teaching and learning, managing staff, financial, governors.

"Looking at the leadership team, I thought it would be a good qualification for them. Although it wasn't mandatory then I thought they would gain as professionals and the school would gain as well.

"I think it makes them reflect on what they are doing and where they are in their profession. To be accepted to do the qualification gives them self-esteem because not everybody gets on to it."

The first to take NPQH was deputy head Richard Hoban. The school's other deputy and assistant heads have since followed suit and the last three have just gained the qualification. One, assistant head Tony Swainston, has gone on secondment to work on continuous professional development with the Department for Education and Skills. And deputy head Richard Hoban now helps Anne Clarke to run Green Meadows, a special school in nearby Guiseley. Their appointment is a temporary measure while Leeds reorganises its special schools.

Mr Hoban says the NPQH training has filled vital gaps in his knowledge, particularly in financial planning and personnel issues. "If you have been in the job for quite a long time you get set in your own little areas. And you can be in a position where you think that's the whole world," he says.

"You don't see that there are other things in school that you never have to make a decision about. NPQH widens your vision. I think the bottom line is that it gives you a massive amount of confidence in your own ability."

In doing the NPQH the deputy and assistant heads had to become more involved with the school's governing body, attending meetings as part of their training. Now they regularly present reports to committees and full governors' meetings.

"It's an area in which people often don't have experience," says Anne Clarke. "Often it's only the head who goes to the meetings. But I have always encouraged the assistant and deputy heads to be involved with the governors."

Another benefit to the school has been in encouraging an ethos of professional development among the rest of the staff. Some are taking the National College for School Leadership's training for middle leaders.

Benton Park also has a well-established initial teacher-training programme and has now applied to become a training school. But is there a danger that in encouraging your senior management team to take the headship qualification, you then lose your best people to become heads elsewhere?

"I believe in encouraging staff to move on," says Mrs Clarke. "I would never dream of saying to anybody 'stay another year because I need you'.

"While you are with an institution you give it your loyalty, but if a job comes up you have to put yourself first. I think it's incumbent on heads to support colleagues in that.

"I would say it is a compliment to the school that these people go on to headship, if that's what they choose to do."

Name: Benton Park school

School type: 11-18 mixed comprehensive

Proportion of children eligible for free school meals: 7 per cent

Improved results: From 53 per cent of pupils gaining five GCSEs at grade C or better in 1997 to 62 per cent last year

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