The Issue: Urban headships - Can you thrive in the urban jungle?

11th January 2008 at 00:00
Taking the helm at tough inner-city schools calls for a special combination of qualities, reports Irena Barker.

Jacqueline Valin does not get stressed easily. Worries about work rarely keep her awake at night and she has huge optimism in the face of adversity. After years in tough London schools, her hair may be turning grey but that may be due more to the inevitability of ageing.

The Hackney-born head took on Southfields Community College in Wandsworth nine years ago when it was in serious weaknesses but it was recently judged as outstanding. A series of brave decisions, including moves towards a more vocational curriculum and a policy against exclusion, have helped it thrive in an area of high deprivation. A willingness to spend every waking hour on her job has also contributed to its success.

"Being a woman has also had a big impact," says Ms Valin. "Our intake is two-thirds boys and I think I am a sort of mother figure. I can use my feminine side to defuse situations."

The passion and confidence with which she talks about her work suggest she was born for the job. At 53, she says she is far from planning her retirement. But not every urban school has the advantage of being led with such energy and devotion.

The increase in successful urban leaders making the news, such as Jo Shuter at north-west London's Quintin Kynaston, masks a shortage of willing and experienced staff. Middle management is one of the worst hit areas, and as this feeds leadership recruitment there are fears for the supply as the babyboomers retire.

Urban leadership is widely seen as the more challenging career option. Schools are often expected to achieve results in the face of high deprivation, low aspiration and high numbers of pupils with English as a foreign language.

Money has been pumped in, but recruiting and retaining the staff needed to bring about change is still notoriously difficult. The high cost of living and worries about local state schooling are enough to send many potential leaders scurrying to the country with their young families.

This has caused many to ask how people with the right attributes for urban headship can be identified early and nurtured for the toughest top jobs. Joan Fye, founder of the Urban Leadership Centre in the Wirral, made it her mission to define the qualities and abilities required by urban heads, and help schools develop the talent that already lies in their classrooms.

"Heads in urban schools face similar pressures to those elsewhere, but in a more intense and volatile form. You need courage and resilience to keep going," she said.

Ms Fye, who grew up in the notorious St Anne's area of Nottingham and led schools in Moss Side and central Manchester, was motivated through her work as a school inspector. She said: "I was writing these reports and I could see two very similar schools which had had a huge amount of money poured into them, but the crucial difference between them was the quality of the leadership. There didn't seem to be any mechanism for identifying someone as a really, really good urban headteacher.

Working with the consultancy firm YSC, Ms Fye developed the 12 competencies of the "ultimate" urban head by interviewing some of those who had already been singled out as outstanding.

The competencies (see panel, below) make for a list that might overwhelm many - from "vision and belief" to "enduring resilience". But the centre is keen to stress that not every good school leader will have all the competencies in equal measure. Former maths teacher Jonathan Bloom, now a business psychologist for YSC, stressed: "Good leaders are not always good all-rounders. You may have weaknesses but you will have people around you to complement you."

The idea of the successful urban leader as a "maverick" pervades, but Phil Duffy, head of Wallasey School in the Wirral, doesn't like the word.

"I think that suggests someone who is careless," he said. "A better way to put it is someone who is prepared to stick their head above the parapet and be shot at. You need to subvert things to make them work for your children."

Mr Duffy is working with Ms Fye to develop an "aspiring leadership group" in his school that will seek out staff with potential; 29 teachers have signed up to the group and follow the urban leadership pathway training programme. This includes a full analysis of the person's character to identify their "spike", or predominant strengths.

Participants fill in a questionnaire that asks them to rate their own abilities. Their peers, managers, and those under them are asked to judge them too. The final analysis reveals the core strengths they should build on as their career progresses. They also discover any "blindspots" they may have. Katie Rooney, 32, Wallasey School's head of visual and performing arts, said discovering her spike had given her extra confidence. "I came out as having strong emotional intelligence, which I thought already, but it was good to find out what other people thought of me too."

Mr Duffy said putting so many staff on the urban leadership pathway had not been a comfortable journey, but a good one.

"There are existing schemes such as the National College for School Leadership's Leading from the Middle, but they are more about strategies and systems; this is far more personalised," he said. "There was initially scepticism from staff, but the feedback has been extremely positive."

Once staff have been convinced of their potential, they only have to see the potential rewards of taking the urban path.

Rachel McFarlane, head of Walthamstow School for Girls in north-east London, said: "The buzz, the opportunities and potential in the urban context are quite unique and special. Urban areas are so dynamic.

"Although children do present with a range of issues, I really enjoy the challenge of supporting pupils and helping them engage with learning."


Are up to the top job?

Do you have the necessary combination of qualities to lead an urban school? Joan Fye has identified 12 she thinks make for the ultimate head. But no one person would have them all. Good leaders are those who can harness the qualities of senior staff to complement their own strengths.

Fye asks people who sign up for her urban leadership pathway programme to fill in an online questionnaire - similar to a 360 deg review - that makes them rate their own pluses and minuses. See how you rate for the 12 fundamental qualities or skills.

1. Vision and belief. You need a passionate belief that all children can succeed, whatever their background, and be able to communicate this to pupils and staff. Staff look to you to help them know where they should be going. So you have to be clear about your school's priorities and how they are going to be achieved.

2. Courage and moral purpose. You have to be able to stand up to people - critical inspectors, demanding town halls, stroppy parents or recalcitrant staff - and lift your head above the parapet when necessary. This sends out a strong signal about what you believe in and your ability to offer staff leadership and protection.

3. An empowering culture. You must delegate rather than doing everything yourself then spending time checking on staff. Have confidence in managers to let them become experts in a field.

4. Emotional intelligence. This is about understanding and relating well to pupils and all members of the school community. An intuitive leader senses problems, worries or dissatisfaction within the school and addresses them before they blow up into an awkward situation. It is not about suppressing problems, but anticipating them.

5. Balancing challenge and empathy. There's no point in being a hard taskmaster, but you shouldn't be a walkover either. Pandering to people simply to keep the peace is not good leadership. Your job is to keep driving everyone forward at a pace they can feel reasonably comfortable with so that they are looking to raise their standards continously.

6. School and community champion. Understand the school community and its complexities - poverty, diversity, range of cultures and religions. You have to be able to fight your corner with the local authority, governors and other outside bodies.

7. Resourcing creatively. You need to use your staff imaginatively and creatively to maximise outcomes. Duck and dive to get the money you want. I knew a legendary senior member of staff in an east London secondary who knew his way round the labyrinth of philanthropic committees handing out grants. Get your fingers in those pies.

8. Leading learning innovation. You have to be on top of what makes a good lesson and ensure your staff know what they are doing, too. Equally important is the ability to coach staff to take on board the points you make.

9. Judging situations. You need to be able to weigh up the issues, make sound judgments and acquire experience to respond effectively to unexpected circumstances.

10. Stability and consistency. Your job is to keep the ship steady. Too many changes too quickly are unsettling. Both staff and pupils feel more secure if you are consistent.

11. Vigilant focus. There are times when attractive ideas are presented that could lead down blind alleys. You have to keep focused on your main objectives.

12. Enduring resilience. Stamina and the ability to stay unfazed help you keep the drive you need to lead. When the going gets tough, you need to be able to draw on inner reserves of commitment and self-belief.

For more information about the Urban Leadership Centre, go to

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today