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Talking Shop;Problems

Former headteacher Sue Mulvany gets to the heart of issues that concern you

Q I have been in post for two terms as head of a village school. This is my second headship. In my first school, which was very small, the staff worked as a team both professionally and socially. The school was judged to be good and enjoyed the support of parents. In my present school, the picture is entirely different. I find it difficult to draw folk together, parents and staff form cliques, governors squabble, and, as a teaching head, my own classroom practice is less effective. I feel I'm losing my grip and I'm beginning to doubt my ability to do the job.

AMany headteachers will identify closely with your situation. You are in the process of learning a very important lesson about second headships - that you take nothing with you but experience. In theory, your first headship should have prepared you for this, but no two schools are the same. Some administrative systems and developmental processes will be similar, but you must remember that staff and schools are like children and classes. You start from where they are and take them where they never thought they could go. This can mean that you have almost to re-route part of your own professional development and take a couple of steps sideways before you can go forward together.

Some heads fail to do this. They have felt experienced enough to start getting involved with initiatives that have taken them out of school but, unfortunately, their new school has suffered as a result.

You describe a school that obviously needs you to give active leadership and coherence to its life. It is still early days. Find out the strengths and weaknesses of the school by observing everything and talking to parents, pupils, governors and staff. Analyse the results and, together, formulate a flexible plan for the next two or three years. Keep reviewing your progress and adjusting priorities. It will take you a couple of years to see a marked improvement. I wish you every success. Second and subsequent headships are often more challenging, not less!

Q I am in my second year of teaching a Year 1 class. Each day begins with parents or carers spending about 10 minutes with their child quietly writing a sentence about what they want to tell me. Since September, the session has been relaxed and purposeful. But recently things have changed. One of the mums is regularly losing her temper with her daughter. She becomes loud and critical. Other parents are embarrassed and the atmosphere in the classroom is beginning to change. How do I deal with the situation without alienating the parent who needs support the most?

A What a lovely way to begin the day and what a positive message parents in your class are getting about their role as educators.

The mum you describe would seem to be under some kind of stress. She may feel threatened about how peaceful everyone else appears. There may be some situation at home that forces her to arrive in an anxious state. She may have the wrong idea about the task, her expectations of her child may be inappropriate for that age group, or she herself may find writing difficult.

Whatever the reason, you must have a quiet word with her, try to allay her fears and, if needs be, offer some alternative activity that both mother and daughter can share. You might want to work with the two of them yourself for a short while.

Q We have created a new early-years unit in our school recently and now we have designed an assessment system leading to records of achievement. Can you give us any ideas about how classroom observations can be organised?

A First, design and keep a stock of pre-printed (A5) sheets showing the relevant targets for each age group in the curriculum. Highlight the statements as they are attained and, whatever you do, don't forget to keep a note of the child's name and the date. With these sheets, keep a notebook and write down other significant observations. At the end of each session, sort out the notes for each child and put them into their record of achievement.

Second, give each adult a bum-bag in which is kept a small camera, sticky labels and a pen. Photograph important evidence, note the achievements on a label and put all the pieces in appropriate files. You can try to arrange a discounting scheme with your nearest photographic shop to help keep the cost of developing the pictures down.

Drop Sue a line: see the panel on page 7 for our address and fax number. You can also leave questions, or hints for this month's letter writers, on The TES Internet website at

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