The Interview - 'You're the oil in the machine'

27th March 2009 at 00:00
Stephanie Benbow is head of St Mary's CofE High School in Churchgate, Hertfordshire, which she moved out of special measures just nine months after taking up the post

How did you get into teaching?

I loved sport, and dance was my thing. I saw teaching as a way of continuing my sporting interests and getting paid. When I finished my training in Dartford in 1985, I knew that I wanted to work in a challenging school. I figured that if I could prove I could do this first and survive then I could be sure I could cope with anything. I was young, determined and wanted to prove myself. I see the same quality in new teachers joining our school. I had great support.

Where did you get your inspiration?

In my second school I worked for a fantastic head of PE, who was an inspiration. She showed me the importance of out-of-classroom education and outward-bound activities. She hated paperwork, so we traded: I did that and she took some of my lessons. It wasn't entirely conventional training, but it gave me such a breadth of experience early on. Later in my career, as a deputy, I was fortunate to work for another inspirational woman. Linda Powell was head of Eastlea Community School in east London, and the senior leadership team took it out of special measures. I learnt a lot from Linda and was encouraged to believe in my school leadership potential.

Was that good preparation for your role now?

It was, and - combined with my naivety - I think it helped St Mary's pass Ofsted.

This is my first headship and I didn't ask many questions about the school before taking up the post. I'm glad I didn't, as I might have been put off. The school had five heads in as many years and had lost its way. The great thing about the inspections was that it focused our collective determination and by pulling together, setting our sights on a collective vision and celebrating successes, the school moved forwards rapidly.

How did you do it?

Vision and attention to the basics. It's not rocket science: enough has been written about what you should do. We needed to know what it was we wanted to achieve, who was responsible for what and then aim for consistency, determination and high expectations. It was important to include the pupils, making them part of what we had to achieve and not recipients of some agenda.

What makes a great headteacher?

Probably 101 things, but I have been struck by how a head must be so many things to so many people. You have to be able to listen to some colleagues, guide others, put an arm around another, pat people on the back and recognise what they do, all while appearing to be calm, collected and in control. You are the constant oil in the machine, lifting the school's spirit, holding it to account and giving away the credit for its success. It demands that you are positive and proactive as well as turning your hand to so many different parts of the job. I had not realised just how relentless that is and how so many people look to the head to make their judgments about the school.

So what now?

I want to give the staff the opportunities to get our school to where it deserves to be. We move to new buildings next year and need to focus on our targets for the achievements of our pupils and the local community. The special measures and National Challenge tags (which only applied for three months) did not help at all. Nor do the ever-changing targets. There is much that is good and excellent about the school, the staff and our pupils that is not acknowledged by selective use of data. Where is it recognised that our staff do such a fantastic job of caring and looking out for our pupils, often well beyond the call of duty? We need to encourage the wider community to value education, have higher expectations for young people and take advantage of the opportunities provided by schools and extended services. Our move to a new site will help that sense of a new community.

What would you say to someone thinking of taking up headship of a school in special measures?

Look after yourself; no one else has your back. You have to have everyone else's. Maintain constantly high levels of energy, health and fitness. You must take time to recharge the batteries; keep a balance between work and home and recognise the difference between working to live and living to work. It's an incredible job and it teaches you humility. You have to constantly remember that you are here for the next generation and that's what counts: it is easy for the adults in school to forget that under the daily grind of activity, especially when the pupils themselves don't see it. We have made incredible progress in the past five years and our reward comes in the reflected glory of these young people's achievements.

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

I would resign, in recognition of my failure to provide a clear strategic vision and appropriate levels of resourcing to develop an education system that provided equality of opportunity for every child to achieve their full potential and be valued in so doing.

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

I am fed up hearing people in schools saying that "If it wasn't for the children, everything would be OK". That's no excuse.


2004-Present: Head, St Mary's High School, Herts

1999-2004: Director of learning (deputy headteacher), Eastlea Community School, Newham, London

1995-1999: Senior teacher, Hockerill Anglo-European College, Herts

1988-1995: Head of departmentprofessional development tutor, Rainham School for Girls, Kent

1986-1988: Second in department, Sarah Bonnell School, London

1985-1986: Assistant teacher, St Saviour's and St Olave's, Southwark, London.

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