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Support staff in top spot

Keen non-teachers stand a chance of becoming heads, writes Gerald Haigh

COULD SOMEONE who's never been a teacher become head of a school? One person who certainly hopes so is Ruth Bradbury, assistant headteacher (resources) at Westhoughton high in Bolton.

She is an English graduate and qualified accountant, and came into school via the NHS and further education. A valued member of the Westhoughton senior leadership team, she has no teaching qualification but is none the less enrolled on the national professional qualification for head-ship (NPQH).

It is certain that across the country there are others like Ruth. Her ambition is a natural consequence of a changing school structure that has given increasing responsibility to non-teachers. There are teaching assistants, learning mentors, technicians, administrators, facilities managers and bursars.

As numbers have grown, so career structures have emerged, with posts such as higher level teaching assistant. At the administrative level, more and more bursars and facilities managers are being drawn into senior teams, so it is no surprise that they are looking round and wondering why they're the only senior leadership team members who can't progress.

Ruth has garnered a formidable portfolio of responsibilities, many traditionally part of the teaching domain. "I teach A-level critical thinking, run a key stage 3 citizenship project, I have a tutor group and I'm involved with mentoring underachieving pupils in Years 10 and 11," she says.

But it's membership of the leadership team that really counts for her. "I feel I'm able to contribute fully to strategic planning and I've developed a curriculum and pastoral overview," she says. "I make a significant contribution at all SLT meetings."

Surely, though, in terms of school leadership, Ruth still lacks some obvious skills and experience? She's not entirely convinced about that.

"Leadership is a collection of skills," she says. "The NPQH, for example, is less of a problem for me than for some of the others because most of it is about training teachers for roles they're not used to, in finance and resources."

But wouldn't a teaching qualification surely strengthen her case? Clearly, she would regard that as a diversion. She is intent on moving forward from where she is now, demonstrating that headship really can emerge from her sort of role.

Realistically, she is unlikely to go straight from her present job to headship. What she hopes for is something in between, a deputy headship, say. For my money it's a slim chance, and would require a bold decision by an innovative head and governing body. But you never know.

As Ruth says: "I love the life in school and the opportunity to make a difference for young people. I can stay, or I can leave the school environment, or I can bang my head against some walls to see what happens.

"There's a lot of cultural change going on in education at the moment, and schools will be trying out new things."


A teaching assistant can aspire to become a higher level teaching assistant.

The Association for Science Education, in conjunction with the Design Technology Association, is developing an NVQ-based career ladder for technicians.

For people in the school office, there's the National College for School Leadership's (NCSL) bursar development programme.

High-flying support staff can aspire to headship. The NCSL estimates that no more than 10 non-teachers are doing the national professional qualification for headship at any one time out of 7,000 candidates. But that figure is likely to grow given the forthcoming PricewaterhouseCoopers review, which supports broad-based school leadership.

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