The Interview - 'At first my age roused attention'

20th March 2009 at 00:00
Steven Clark became head of Tabor Science College in Braintree, Essex, when he was 32 - the youngest head in the UK at the time. Has his youth been a challenge or a benefit?

What led you into teaching in the first place?

My parents were both teachers, so I had fully intended not to teach. I had always been very good at sciences and was offered a place at medical school. Over the summer I worked in a school as a sports instructor for six weeks and loved it so much I ditched my medical course and signed up to train as a teacher. I taught at schools in Essex and spent a year in Australia, which was a fantastic experience. I think it helped me realise that children are the same wherever you go and also the value of autonomy in setting curriculum objectives for teachers.

How come you became head just ten years into the profession?

I applied for a job at Colne Community School in Brightlingsea and the then head Terry Creissen appointed me as deputy when I was 28. He took a real risk, but I learnt so much working with him and he gave me plenty of opportunities to take full responsibility for whole school matters. It seemed a natural step four years later to apply for the headship at Tabor and I've never looked back.

What did you find when you joined the school?

In Braintree there are just three secondary schools with relationships that go a long way back. Tabor had once been very high achieving, but in more recent years had been struggling to find its way.

So what did you do about it?

You can't manage from behind a closed door - so I teach, I deal with students, I get around the site, make sure I am seen - which is easy since I am 6 foot 5 inches tall. I give a lot of energy to the role and I think that has paid off. We are also very lucky that the local authority was far sighted and rebuilt the school in stages over the last 17 years. It's a well-designed, modern, comfortable school.

What do you enjoy about being a head?

People have said that I was cut out for it. Lots of teachers say they never want to be a head, but I work hard, give a lot of time to the job and it's constantly exciting and rewarding. My philosophy is to "just do". The school is now unrecognisable from the one I took over.

But your relative youth must have been a challenge as well as a benefit?

The upside is that I have a modern outlook, make full use of ICT and am not phased by any aspect of its development, probably have more energy, and am at a similar stage in my life as many teachers and parents. It might mean I understand students better too. I might have expected some colleagues to have been negative about my age, but if they are, I don't hear it. I think you are judged by what you do - not how long you have been doing it. When I started, my age brought me and the school lots of attention, but since then it's just been business as usual.

What critical changes have you made?

Everything has changed: the structure of the day; we've introduced a house-based system. It's a massive transformation. We have even minted our own currency of Tabor coins - given for good behaviour and achievement and taken away as a punishment. Each class has an accountant and bank and this has created a great deal of positive feeling around the school. I believe in being relentlessly optimistic and positive. I want to enjoy school and I feel that has rubbed off.

Where do you go from here?

We are a potentially average school in an averagely well-off town, in an average area of the country, so there is a danger that we could end up being an average school. All the support and focus in schooling seems to go into the "challenged schools" and "100 per cent achieving schools", and schools like Tabor could get lost. I am determined to make people sit up and notice schools like ours, because if we want standards to rise in this country they must rise in my kind of school as well as those at the extremes.

Have you got a message for other people your age wanting to become heads?

Go for it. It's possible to be a young dad with an active social and sporting life and be a head too. It's a question of energy, efficiency, managing time and drawing a balance between work and home. I would not swap this job for any other and there are lots of great potential leaders out there who should take that gamble.

If you were Schools Secretary for the day what would you do?

I'd engage a wide range of serving heads to inform and shape all further policy and particularly to develop and implement a more intelligent accountability and inspection system for all schools. My target would be to end the postcode lottery of perceived school success. I'd also consider introducing the Scottish summer break across the UK, as it would fit in much better with public examinations and the hotter July weather.

What's the worst excuse you've ever heard?

It is not an excuse, but happened in a formal interview with a student and their parent regarding some negative behaviour. The child's mother, pleased with the support we were offering, took it upon herself to thank me by removing her false front teeth and planting a big kiss on my cheek.


2004-2009: Head, Tabor Science College in Braintree, Essex

2001-2004: Vice principal, Colne Community School in Brightlingsea, Essex

2000-2001: AST science, Philip Morant School in Colchester, Essex

2000: Exchange teacher at Illawarra Grammar, NSW, Australia

1995-2000: Philip Morant School in Colchester.

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