Different strokes

22nd August 2003 at 01:00
It's never easy to take over from a living legend. Nicholas Pyke explains how to make your mark

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Stepping into someone else's shoes can be tricky, particularly if the shoes in question are large and curiously shaped. How do you take over from a successful teacher or manager whose long experience and forceful personality have come to define the job? What do you do when it turns out you are following a pedagogical Matt Busby or a staffroom Margaret Thatcher? There will be scores, maybe even hundreds, of nervous appointees who find the shadows of their vanished predecessors darkening the corridors when they start work next month.

Nigel Gardener's response has been to generate some heat and light of his own. Mr Gardener, a newly appointed assistant head at Robert Clack school in the London borough of Barking, has been asked to take over from a local legend - a teacher of such huge standing in the school and community that he was accepted as the face of authority. A man of military background and bearing, he did everything from controlling crowds of pupils in the stairwells to soothing the nerves of angry bus drivers, explains Mr Gardener.

"His role was almost unique. He had no teaching timetable. Instead, his job was to make sure that the school's management systems operated well, day in, day out. He was a troubleshooter, in the school and the local community."

Last term, Mr Gardener was given main responsibility for pastoral issues and academic achievement, a key post in a 1,750-pupil school that does extraordinary work with a difficult intake. "Malcolm, my predecessor, was superb. He made himself the focus of everything. People came to him, sometimes instead of using the systems the school had in place. One of the best things he used to say was, 'Any problems, send them to me', although he sometimes regretted it," says Mr Gardener.

So now it is Mr Gardener who finds himself directing traffic in the stairwells, and many expect him to perform the same job in the same style.

But he has his own ideas. He maintains a prominent presence around the school, but is backing it up with meetings and strategies to ensure that responsibility is shared around a talented staff - probably the only way to cope in the circumstances.

Andy Knowles was alive to the weight of expectation when he took over from Dame Tamsyn Imison as head of Hampstead school in the London borough of Camden. There was, he says, genuine surprise that any change of direction could be required - particularly as he had been deputy under the old regime.

Hampstead, a mixed comprehensive, was judged so successful that Ms Imison had been ennobled after 16 years in the post. "It was a case of making sure we did things differently, and that we were seen to be doing things differently," Mr Knowles says. "With a head who's been in post a long time, it's easy for people to become comfortable. So we took a systematic approach to whole-school review.

"Some people were upset that I wanted to make these changes. Why would I want to do this when things were so successful? They assumed things would be the same."

Gary Ince, chief executive of the Institute of Leadership and Management, which is part of the City and Guilds group and the UK's biggest provider of in-service management qualifications, approves of this approach. "The key issue is to make sure that whoever comes into the job becomes their own person and doesn't try to be the person they're replacing. You see it all the time: someone trying to be someone they're not."

Tony Howell had a huge reputation to face down when he replaced Professor Tim Brighouse as chief education officer of Birmingham education authority last year. There is, as he puts it, "a period of almost grief and bereavement" when such a major personality leaves and, as Andy Knowles found at Hampstead, a level of disbelief that anything could be changed for the better.

"Tim Brighouse transformed education in the city," says Mr Howell. "He took nine years to do it, but there were still some things he hadn't touched, as he acknowledged. Some people had the idea that everything was sorted, and nothing else was needed." In fact, he adds, Birmingham's education department is growing, taking on new roles and responsibilities. There are plenty of rocks yet to be lifted in such a huge authority, and who knows what might creep out.

Jane Doughty, assistant director of programmes at the National College for School Leadership, says that no matter how good a school or local authority seems, it can always be improved or adapted to changing circumstances.

"Remember that the governors have selected you for what you have to offer.

They selected you for your strengths and vision," she says.

The words could come from the advice columns of a teenage magazine. But most people seem to agree with her when she says, "Just be yourself".

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