Bored with being so successful

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
PATRICIA DENISON Answers your questions

I am in my seventh year of headship at a fairly large primary. During the past year we have had a really good Ofsted experience, acquired a Healthy Schools award, an Artsmark and our second Investor in People accreditation.

The staff are stable, love working at the school, while parents and children are happy. The problem is me - I'm jaded and in need of inspiration.

First of all, enjoy where you are. You are not losing sleep about mediocre standards, poor performance, perilous finances, and energy-sapping crises.

I'm suspecting that you don't go about broadcasting how you feel to your more pressured and strained colleagues - we rarely hear fellow heads in self-congratulatory mode, and smugness is not attractive.

But I hope you have given sufficient weight to celebration - the school atmosphere should be heady with success. Children will be thrilled that they are lucky enough to attend such a brilliant school and their parents will shout about the wisdom of living in its catchment area.

Before you explore your next step, spend time on an in-depth investigation of just how the school manages to be so good. Invite groups of people from the school community to consider "what makes this school brilliant?" Don't accept platitudes and value judgements, dig down and get specific.

To responses such as "the staff are happy", ask "what do we mean by happy?"

Find out what exactly that means for them - are they pleased that not too much is expected of them, or are they feeling powerful, autonomous and fearless? What conditions are in place to secure their equanimity - is everything comfortable and "known" or are they stimulated and excited by uncertainty, experimentation and challenge? What do children say about their learning? Who do they perceive to be in charge of it - they themselves, or their teachers? Are they very good at conforming to school norms and practices, or are they delighted to be making choices, involved in decisions and building a meaningful curriculum.

What's the parents' view? Ask potentially disturbing questions - how accepting are they of what the school is doing? What is it they admire about the school? How does their own involvement contribute to the school's success?

And what about leadership - where is it? Why is the school chasing awards? Who are the drivers, the creative thinkers, the doers? What keeps them going? Where are they getting the energy? And how do you fit in with this picture? Are you leading from the front, providing ideas, inspiration and direction? Or is leadership so embedded that development will arise from different sources? Are you always in control of the action?

You might unearth assumptions that you would like to challenge.Your enquiry will lead to further questions, and those questions may well suggest possibilities for the sort of radical action which will disturb,shake up and unsettle tried-and-tested practices. This is what brings about transformation. It's edgy and risky. You will need conviction, champions and a kind of corporate adrenalin surge. It will certainly address your current ennui.

And get out a bit more. Find others who share your desire to be re-energised and form an action group. Get into each other's schools; enable your teachers to network, talk, watch, marvel at each other's work.

Create a different sort of leadership, which builds a community of ideas.

Find and introduce the group to some academic thinking which might ruffle and disturb the members (the National College has an excellent resource bank) and spend time in examining it together.

Remember that you are the lead learner in your school - now learn on behalf of others, and let your learning lead to action. This mix of learning, collaboration and creativity will certainly get rid of the sense of dullness that you are experiencing and should lead you where you didn't think you could go. Enjoy the journey.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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