A good head on your shoulders

8th June 2007 at 01:00
Aspiring young leaders are being guided by expert old hands, reports Jonathan Milne.

Andrew brierley has been boxing up his children's toys this week as he prepares to move to Devon to take up his first headship at West Croft junior school in Bideford.

The 43-year-old had been encouraged by his headteacher in the West Midlands to complete a professional headship qualification and apply to lead a school.

"I was a little bit nervous," he said. "I work with colleagues who are very capable but none of them wants to be a head when they see the paperwork involved."

Mr Brierley took part in a pilot scheme to coach 40 aspiring heads, supported by the National College for School Leadership as it battles to overcome a shortage.

The college announced this week that it would send 20 recruitment consultants into schools across England to help them find new heads as part of a new Pounds 10 million Government scheme.

Schools are worried that, as the current generation of heads retire, few young teachers are ready or willing to step into their shoes. Workload, responsibility and pay are cited as deterrents.

The college is revamping its headteachers' professional qualification in light of the fact that one in seven people who complete it decide against headship. But Vanni Treves, college chairman, told its conference in Birmingham this week that momentum was building to fill the empty posts.

The 20 "national succession consultants" are intended to help local authorities and schools work together to pick out potential leaders and mentor them until they are ready to take charge.

The consultants will follow in the footsteps of planning fieldworkers, such as Non Worrall in the West Midlands, who have been testing ways to nurture potential school leaders.

Ms Worrall has been working with 467 schools and four local authorities in the Black Country to identify talented deputy or assistant heads and provide experienced heads to coach them.

"Heads like helping other people; they like being able to offer something back," she said. "It doesn't take a lot of time."

Against all the college's predictions, they had no shortage of deputies and assistants once it became clear they would be given coaching and support rather than being dropped in the deep end.

Tracy Ruddle, headteacher of Corngreaves primary school in Sandwell, signed up as a coach, and three members of her management team agreed to be mentored.

At 45, Ms Ruddle is a young head, but Rebecca Hamilton, her assistant head, is 29. Ms Ruddle helped her fill in the gaps in her experience, such as financial management, working with databases and developing community links. Ms Hamilton had always used the word "we" to emphasise the teamwork involved in school achievements. "But one of the things I learnt is that, as a leader, you need to start taking responsibility and using the word 'I'," she said.

The NCSL and Steve Munby, its chief executive, have been lauded by the Prime Minister, but the Conservatives are more sceptical and propose merging it with the Training and Development Agency for Schools.

"I'm not entirely clear what they do," said David Willetts, the shadow education secretary.

Professor Andy Hargreaves, an authority on school leadership, told the conference that school improvement networks such as those run by the college had come to resemble speed dating agencies, where leaders excitedly exchanged "gimmicky" short-term strategies.

Truda White, head of Highbury Grove school in north London, has designed her own training course for school leaders, with little external assistance from the NCSL or anyone else - and 17 of her staff have already signed up.

"What I'm doing isn't being done in other schools," she said. "I'm driving it myself."

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