Spellbound

Superheads might be more newsworthy, but what about the leaders who are in for the long haul, the ones who know every child and consider that it's a privilege to run a school?One man has coined a phrase to describe this little-recognised band of stayers: the enchanted heads. Elaine Williams reports.

A father's words, never forgotten, have motivated Ronnie Woods throughout his career as a headteacher. "Dad once told me I was lucky; that I was privileged," he says, and that sense of privilege has never left him during his 10 years of headship. The feeling is shared by other long-serving heads he has interviewed recently, as he tried to find out what keeps a headteacher effective in the same school for many years.

Mr Woods, 47, had been worrying about hitting the comfort zone in his job as head of Cleaden Village junior, a school that serves the commuters of Tyneside and Wearside. After 10 years he began to worry that the longer he stayed the less effective he might become. After all, the consensus of existing research was of an "inevitable decline" into "disenchantment and withdrawal" the longer a head stayed in post.

So when he saw an advertisement in The TES inviting research proposals from practising heads for the National College for School Leadership, he leapt at the chance to explore an issue close to his heart - the nature of "enchantment". What is it about effective long-servers that makes them effective? The research on that point was thin.

What Mr Woods produced from a 50-day sabbatical is Enchanted Headteachers: sustainability in primary school headship, an impassioned portrait of heads so in love with their schools that they view leading them as the greatest privilege. Such heads will often refer to "my school"; will know all the children and all their weaknesses and achievements; and spend lots of time in the classroom, striving to find ways to make things even better. They will talk of their staff with pride, consider themselves lucky to have them and constantly seek to develop their skills and harness their gifts. "Such heads have an essential humility," says Mr Woods. "They see themselves as so fortunate to be able to make a difference to children's lives and to have the staff, parents and governors they do."

Some of those he interviewed had been headhunted for other headships but chose to stay in post. Most of them, he said, were publicly embarrassed by the word enchanted but quietly acknowledged that this is, indeed, how they feel about their schools.

For his research, Mr Woods sought out heads who had been in post in just one school since before the 1988 Education Reform Act ("a period of unprecedented change"); whose school was described by Ofsted as "good"; whose leadership was cited as an important factor in the success of the school; and who were recognised by their local education authorities as having continued commitment and enthusiasm. He came up with 13 - all of them primary and from north-east England.

The paper, he says, has attracted an enthusiastic response. "People have been contacting me to say they know a head just like this, and then proceed to tell me all about the person. There are so many heads out there who have lived this job effectively and passionately for 10 or 20 years whose work should be celebrated."

Mr Woods acknowledges that professional researchers might question his methodology and the limited nature of his research sample, but believes he has an advantage because he is "living" the subject matter, and heads opened up to him. "At the beginning, I would ring schools and ask to speak to the head, saying I was a research assistant, and nobody got back to me. When I rang and said I was a head who wished to discuss a few matters with their head, I was given immediate access."

Hundreds of heads have requested the full report, which he believes is timely. Many teachers, he says, don't want to take up headship because of the hassle. "Where is the next generation of headteachers going to come from?" he asks. "Teachers need to be told about what keeps those heads going and doing a good job for years."

He was initially astonished to discover that all the heads chosen for interview turned out, like himself (son of a County Durham miner), to be from poor, working-class families and were the first generation to go into higher education and teaching. Such a background, he later reflected, helped to sharpen their focus on making a difference for children.

Mr Woods was a secondary modern lad who made it to grammar school, and was an accomplished 800-metres runner. Because of his background and because he was good at sport, the grammar school overlooked his academic potential and channelled him towards being a PE teacher, but he has an intellectual hunger that has driven him as a head, and now as a researcher.

He is at pains to stress that the research was not an exercise in blowing his own trumpet. He says he is in awe of the headteachers he met during the course of his research, has learned much and has much yet to learn. But he is intensely attached to Cleaden and its community and has brought the school a long way, beyond expectations even from its middle-class intake. Around 50 per cent of pupils achieve level 5 in key stage 2 SATs, and the school has built up an outstanding record in competitive sports, including rugby league and cross-country running; many children are also offered fencing. Mr Woods runs with the children and teaches them, often when the school needs cover; and he does yard duty every week.

It's a tough job, he says, and one that has changed immensely. "Some of the heads can be quite feisty. They don't have an uncritical view of all the changes they've been asked to embrace, but they remain optimistic for the sake of the children. Primary schools have made incredible gains over the past five to eight years. We've taken the Government's agenda and we've made it work; we've made it work, not the Government."

Moreover, he found many of his interviewees were nonconformist in their approach to the job, reinforcing his belief that individualism is an essential characteristic of a successful head. "Just as the literacy and numeracy strategy have to be adopted discerningly, otherwise they become de-skilling, so with management. Ofsted presents a fairly standard pattern of what a good school looks like, but there are other ways of doing things. The offbeat can work. There isn't one answer to this. Best practice has all sorts of facets; that is clear in the research."

In particular, Ronnie Woods believes the good work long-serving heads are quietly getting on with is often obscured by the hype surrounding "superheads". He questions how effective short-term troubleshooters can be. Stability, he believes, is a virtue that should be valued more. "You can't claim to have got on top of the job until you have seen a cohort of children all the way through - that takes at least seven years - and earned the trust of staff and governors. If you are really going to make a long-term difference you have to get to know your children really well. Getting one or two sets of good results doesn't mean you've turned things around."

The Government, he notes, is keen to court new headteachers. Maybe, he says, it should take more opportunities to celebrate with the "wrinklies".

'Enchanted Headteachers: sustainability in primary school headship' is available from Amanda Hatchett, NCSL, Jubilee Campus, Wollaton Road, Nottingham NG6 1BB. Fax a request to 0115 84 66952 or visit www.ncsl.org.ukresearch associates. Ronnie Woods: ronnie.woods@btopenworld.com

"Tears and fears", Talkback, page 21

Are you enchanted?

Ronnie Woods's guide to what gives a head staying power

* Pride in your people and their achievements.

* Closeness to the children and an acute awareness of their needs. A belief that your school is making a huge difference to children's lives.

* Passionate commitment to teaching and learning - to the quality of provision, to maintaining high standards, to the development of fully rounded individuals.

* Respect for, and sensitivity to, the needs of others, placing a high value upon quality of relationships throughout the school.

* An optimistic view of change as challenge. A view that the school keeps moving forward and can always improve. Imposed change is taken, adapted and made to work.

* Skill at listening, encouraging others to contribute, the ability to accept constructive criticism and admit mistakes.

Magic moments

What the heads told Mr Woods

* "It would be crazy to say you didn't have your lows, but they don't last long. The kids are the ones that fire you."

* "I still like the jobI I think it's the best job in the worldI Some days I come in for our 8 o'clock breakfast club feeling so low, then a child rushes up to meI"

* "A very, very important part of headship is knowing your families - knowing the child and the family from which it comes."

* "I believe in the team, in the school's four walls. I have expertise to cope with any problem."

* "With experience you realise that just because it says in the file you have to do it that way, you don't have to."

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