The driving ambition

14th January 2000 at 00:00
It may not be like the City, but most teachers have a will to succeed. Phil Revell reports.

Are teachers ambitious? The Government seems to think so. Fast tracking and performance-related pay are both underpinned by the belief that the job lacks a proper career structure. The theory is that the improved pay prospects and clear route to the top will encourage more people to enter the profession. But will they?

"There is ambition," says Chris Nichols, who became head of Moulsham High School in Essex at the age of 39. "Perhaps it's not the driven ambition you might see in the City, but it's there." People want to get on. Mr Nichols certainly did.

"From the day I went into teaching, I wanted to be a head. I'd mapped out the ages by which I wanted to have achieved certain things." Mr Nichols entered teaching as a science teacher at the Ilford County High School for Girls in 1975. He had a PhD, but no teaching qualification, and the first year in the job saw him studying part time for his PGCE.

The school became a comprehensive shortly afterwards and Chris had his first promotion - teaching physics in a school where the upper school was a girls grammar and the first year was a mixed comprehensive. "A very good learning environment," he recalls.

He became a year head then moved to Moulsham in 1982 as senior teacher. Within 18 months, he was a deputy and in 1990 he became the head. Early in his career, Mr Nichols volunteered for an unpaid post, only to be advised by a more experienced teacher: "Don't ever do that." This advice he has ignored.

"Take on what you can to broaden your experience," he counsels. "Doing that has built my knowledge of schools and how they work."

The internal promotions which characterise Chris Nichols' career are increasingly common, though past conventional wisdom was that a successful career involved moving schools.

"In the education world I started in," he says, "the local education authority view was that you moved. But I'd argue that for people who want headship, moving schools isn't as important as moving jobs."

Susan Trigger has moved schools several times, from inner-city comp, to girls grammar school, to rural comprehensive and on to her present post, as head of the Bitterne Park School in Southampton. But she echoes Chris Nichols' view that the job is more important than the move. "The most important thing is to have proven successes," she says. "If you've moved seven or eight times, that could be every two to three years. Where's the evidence of the things you have introduced actually working? I'd be very sceptical of someone with a CV which showed them hopping about everywhere."

Ms Trigger's career owes something to serendipity. She came into the profession in 1983 after having used her fine art degree to work in galleries and on restorations. With experience in art and sculpture, she was well placed to take advantage of the rocketing profile that craft and design technology (CDT) enjoyed through the late Eighties and early Nineties. "I taught art and CDT, my background at degree level was in sculpture, so I was qualified to do both."

After a grounding in London, Ms Trigger moved to Salisbury where she developed CDT, then technology in a girls grammar school which had offered neither. The next move gave her major management responsibilities, introducing technology as a core subject across key stage 4 in Queen Elizabeth School in Wimborne Minster.

"That involved co-ordinating five departments," she recalls. From there, she moved into pastoral mode, first as senior teacher, then as deputy. As senior teacher, she was in charge of community developments. "I introduced magazines, activities for kids around the school, non-uniform days, a skateboard club. It worked really well: it tuned in some disillusioned kids into wanting to be on the school site."

Despite her experience, Ms Trigger argues that the pastoral route alone is not enough for headship. "It's an important part of what goes on in a school, but you have a far better chance of getting to headship if you have gone through a curriculum management role, running big departments and dealing with high profile curriculum issues."

As to whether there is a glass ceiling in education, she is sceptical. "My career has been through glass ceilings all the way. Early in my career, kids' fathers would question whether I knew my stuff. If people think that there is a glass ceiling, then it will get in the way. I just got on with it."

"Getting on with it" involved reaching headship at 38 and then having a baby within months.

She believes that serendipity plays its part in the people who are available, either as mentors or managers. At Queen Elizabeth's, she worked with Simon Tong, a head well known for his provision for middle management. In a few years, he has had three of his deputies move on to headship. "You have to meet someone along the route willing to give you a chance," says Ms Trigger.

As a head it's something she tries to do, even if it sometimes involves taking a risk. "If young teachers make a success of something, it benefits the school as well."

One young teacher who made a success of something is Carl Glidden. At the end of his second year, at Alleynes High School in Staffordshire, he was given a senior post.

"I was very lucky really," he says modestly. "One of the heads of year decided to leave and I applied. I was interviewed and I was given the position. That was SNS plus 4."

Mr Glidden teaches CDT and spent a year in industry before returning to teaching. "I don't think I had any career map planned out," he says. "I left that job because I didn't feel that I was making the kind of contribution that I wanted to. When I started teaching, I think I was a much better teacher due to that experience. By the time I arrived in the classroom, I knew that was where I wanted to be."

Mr Glidden is another teacher who has been fortunate in his choice of heads. Peter Mitchell is well known for his willingness to promote young talent, as is Malcolm Chesney at the inner city Moat Farm Junior School, Oldbury, West Midlands. Last year, he offered a key co-ordinator's post to Jacqueline Clarke, who had completed her induction year months beforehand. She had been in the school for one month when she approached the maths co-ordinator to help with the numeracy initiative.

"I really believed in it," she says. "Which is odd really because my own experience of maths at school was very different." At the end of the year, the co-ordinator left to become a deputy head at another school and Jacqueline offered to act as caretaker in the role until the school filled the post.

She wasn't caretaking for long, however. Malcolm Chesney invited her to apply for the post and then appointed her at interview.

"I wasn't sure that I'd be offered it," says Jacqueline, "because there's often a feeling that you have to be in a place for a certain time. Obviously, I was unsure as to how the more experienced staff would react. But it was very positive: I need their support as much as they need mine."

Jacqueline Clarke is ambitious. She joined Moat Farm, despite the job offers elesewhere, because she was inspired by the atmosphere she found at interview. "I'd like a headship, but that's not my ultimate goal. I want to be able to influence education." She knows that her next move could be to a school where the staff are depressed and demoralised.

"This place is colourful," she says of Moat Farm, "but it wasn't always like that. It had to be built up. With one or two people with the right attitude, I think places can be turned around. That would be a challenge."


What are the essential ingredients for a successful teaching career? In the past, it was felt that ambitious teachers had to move between schools. Today, many promotions are made internally. So the question is:

* How much a part does serendipity play - the luck of simply being in the right place at the right time?

* Who are the critical others, the people who can have a major impact on the direction a career can take?

* And what part does gender play? Is there a glass ceiling in today's schools?

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