Careers - To the rescue

18th December 2009 at 00:00
Interim heads, parachuted in to a struggling school to help turn it around, are no longer a rarity. What attracts them to the role?

As the long-serving head of Coundon Court School in Coventry, David Kershaw spent two decades building the kind of school he wanted. These days, he is more likely to do it in two years, or even two terms.

"I retired back in 2001, but when someone suggested I become interim head at a struggling school I couldn't resist," says Mr Kershaw, who has since taken over three schools in special measures and turned them all around. "When I see a poor school, I feel angry, because young people are being let down. As an interim leader, you go in, you roll up your sleeves, and with strong teamwork you can get a school back on its feet. That's immensely satisfying."

Interim heads are on the increase. Working on contracts that vary from a single term to up to two years, they go into schools, do a job and then hand over the reins to a permanent appointment.

For schools in special measures, or struggling to fill a vacancy, interim appointments are often the best way forward.

Some interim heads, like 68-year-old Mr Kershaw, are coming towards the end of their careers and want to share their experience more widely. Others are in their 40s and 50s, and looking for a fresh challenge. "It's a career choice," says Jo Fish, of leadership recruitment company, Navigate. "They are happy to sacrifice job security in return for flexibility, variety, and perhaps the chance to have some time out between jobs."

Most of these "heads for hire" are self-employed freelancers, who establish themselves as a limited company. To find work they rely on their contacts in the local authority or, more often, become associates at companies such as Navigate, which specialise in providing heads in a hurry, and in finding the right person for each job.

Interim heads sometimes command a higher salary than regular heads, especially if they get a reputation for being able to transform a school in a short space of time. But Ms Fish says most are happy to accept the going rate. "It's rarely a question of money - they are nearly always motivated by the challenge. They put their reputation on the line each and every time they take on a job."

While many interim leaders prefer to take on struggling schools, others specialise in standing in for heads that are sick, or on sabbatical.

"It requires a certain kind of character," says Mike Bee, an associate of interim management consultancy Creative Education, who has been head of seven schools in the past 10 years.

"Instead of trying to make your own mark, you have to adopt the nature of the head you are replacing. One time I stood in for someone who was ill, at a school whose Ofsted inspection was approaching. The head came back just before the inspection and it all went smoothly. I found that very satisfying."

What you need to know

- To be an interim head, you will need a proven track record. Agencies vet their associates carefully.

- If you are thinking of switching to interim work, cultivate contacts in your local authority.

- Middle managers and heads of department can also work on an interim basis.

- www.navigategroup.co.uk

- www.creativeeducation.co.uk.

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