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Taking Heads

Chris Owen, age 44, YEARS OF HEADSHIP: 2, SCHOOL: Bartley Green, Birmingham.

A mixed 11-16 comprehensive, of 69O pupils with 55 in a, unit for speech and language difficulties.

Did you always want to be a head?

No the only active career move I made was from pastoral head to deputy. I'd always wanted to teach but my family background was what would be described as socially deprived today, so it didn't always seem realistic. I had to retake A-levels because my mother was quite ill the first time. I was advised to do a BEd because the deputy thought a small college would be right for me and she was right. I started teaching RoSLA (Raising of the School Leaving Age) pupils in Hodge Hill in Birmingham in a school under siege. The staff room was regularly boarded up after thefts. There were 20 probationary teachers and we gave each other a great deal of support. After three years I became a year tutor and did that for five years then moved on to a larger school as head of year. I loved it and stayed for six years before becoming pastoral deputy and then curriculum deputy at another Birmingham school. I was deputy for 10 years before I came here.

How would you describe your style of headship?

Open and honest. I do not like decisions made behind closed doors and I try and use evidence to make judgments. I make myself very obvious around the school. I'm pragmatic and believe in the 'good enough' concept. We cannot be perfect but we should aim to do the job as well as possible without feeling too guilty about things. I don't use blame but look at where we are and what we can do better.

What do you want from staff?

At first the staff just let me do things because they were worried about criticising. So I try to give them the confidence to say when things are not right because they are closer to the everyday reality. It is very important to respond in an open way to constructive criticism. Some of the brightest and best people go into teaching but a lot of them feel disempowered. I want people interfering all over the place.

What is the most important aspect of a head's job?

The culture of the institution. Creating the right atmosphere and ethos where people are recognised as individuals, their worth is recognised, they are treated in an adult way and deal with each other honestly.

What do you enjoy about your job?

Being able to influence and manage change.

What don't you enjoy?

At times the overwhelming responsibility especially when you think about all the things that don't yet meet your expectations. I do not enjoy the administrative bits or the difficult personnel issues which can be very energy-consuming and depressing.

What's the hardest thing you do?

Talking to teachers where standards are less than we hope for. Finding time for thinking.

Who or what influenced you?

Charles Handy I always wanted to work-shadow him and John Harvey Jones. My experiences as a head of year. Doing the MEd. School improvement literature and Deming and Michael Fullan.

What didn't you expect?

The relentlessness. Like housework, you do it all one week and then you have to do it again the next week. Persistence is an under-rated quality for heads. The way people put great store in what you say and so you have to be careful about flippant comments.

What would you do differently?

Too early to say. We have not seen the fruits of what we've done yet.

What keeps you sane?

Sam my nine-year-old son, my husband, friends and family and red wine which I'm pleased to hear is good for your heart. Also my local area education officer Rod Evans. He is immensely experienced and pragmatic and keeps me sane during my low spots. We have a very good network of heads in this area and an informal school improvement group where we discuss the latest research, swop practical tips and support each other at times.

Who are your heroes?

Tim Brighouse. He is so bright and able, yet down to earth. He never forgets what it is like day in, day out, in classrooms.

If you were Secretary of State for education . . .

First, improve school buildings. The conditions we work in affect the self-esteem of staff and pupils. Second, maintain the emphasis on improving standards. I approve of the National Attainment Targets but I think the strait-jacket of the key stage 4 curriculum is not helpful.

Dr Kate Myers is an associate director of the International School Effectiveness and Improvement Centre, (ISEIC) Institute of Education, University of London, and co-ordinates its school improvement network

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