Headship really is a vision thing

20th February 2004 at 00:00
I never envisaged myself as a head. There was no career plan, no determined effort and no striving to achieve a long-held goal. I just fell into it.

During a major disagreement with a deputy head I was told I would never be a deputy head because I was too emotional (emotional intelligence was not invented in those days).

I set about applying immediately, and was terrified when I actually got a deputy post. What did I know about leadership? How do you fit in with an established team? What do you do when you disagree with the head? How do you get people to do things? It was new, exciting and scary.

Being a deputy meant I was finally trusted to run major projects and events. I was able to practise my leadership skills by persuading the head and leadership team that mine was a good idea and by persuading staff to get involved. I had to fight my corner and make myself heard. I loved it - and was as emotional as ever!

Participating in a masters degree in educational leadership gave me the opportunity to develop my own vision and made me realise I wanted to become a head: to follow my vision and set my priorities. Transition from deputy to head was not easy. It was a case of sink or swim and I choose to swim.

The role of deputy head is largely task-oriented; systems management, with some elements of leadership thrown in. It does not prepare you adequately for headship. Neither does the National Professional Qualification for Headship, which is based on developing a set of competencies rather than leadership.

The trainee heads scheme, on the other hand, provides additional experience that makes the transition painless. Now in its third year the scheme aims to give deputies a year in a school facing challenging circumstances. They join as trainee heads, rather than deputies. The experience enables them to hit the ground running when they become heads in similar schools where there is no time to grow into the job. You need to be effective quickly.

When I first applied to be "host" head for a trainee, I had no idea how it would work. I was delighted to have a spare pair of hands but was anxious not to take advantage and to use the trainee as cheap labour! Tim, my trainee, had been a deputy for eight years and did not need more experience in that role. We shared an office and he became my "shadow".

We talked constantly about what was happening and he asked me lots of very difficult questions. My brain began to hurt as I worked out why I did things in a particular way. Tim made me stop and think and share my innermost thoughts and doubts. He made me reflect on my own practice. At times it was difficult to know who was mentoring whom.

What struck me was that many of my decisions were based on gut instinct. My emotions were clearly part of my leadership style! Tim is now a head of his own school and I have another trainee with me. What have we learned from each other?

In a nutshell: there is no right or wrong way in headship; you can and must be yourself. What you do need is a set of values and principles that guide you. These will help you develop your vision and get others to follow. You do have to be positive, practical, optimistic and resilient. You have to be someone who likes, respects and values people. You need to be confident enough to allow people to take risks and to be able to challenge those who are not performing well. You need to share the secret, that there is no secret to successful headship. Simply take the job, if not yourself, seriously. Only then will others follow in your footsteps.

Kenny Frederick is head of George Green's community school in Tower Hamlets, east London

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