Lean on me

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Who do heads turn to when things get too much? Well, in one local authority they turn to each other. Wendy Wallace reports on a peer mentoring scheme for school leaders

Delegates to this year's National Association of Head Teachers conference were in unusually mutinous mood, with primary heads particularly unhappy about the strain of the headteacher's never-ending to-do list. Many say the new inspection regime has added to their burden, and that they are spending more time in the classroom covering their teachers' planning, preparation and assessment time. There are also concerns about plans for schools to become "extended", keeping longer hours to offer childcare and other services on site. A study by researchers at Keele University found that more than a quarter of heads will consider changing jobs if conditions do not change.

In Nottinghamshire, the local authority is trying a new approach to reduce headteacher stress. The county's well-liked director of education, Pam Tulley, who retires at the end of this month, has been a regular visitor to schools during her five years in the post and knows all about the strains of being a head. After receiving crisis calls from a number of heads at breaking point, she asked the authority's department of continuing professional development what more could be done to "care for the carers".

In response, the authority held a series of open meetings in 2002 to canvass opinion among its school leaders; around 150 headteachers attended.

"I feel very strongly that there has never been a time when heads have needed support - non-judgmental support - more than now," says Sharon Jefferies, head of Newark Orchard special school and one of those who attending the packed meetings.

Heads told the LEA officers they wanted three things: non-judgmental relationships; "permission to find the job difficult"; and time put aside for their own professional development. "They felt relieved that something was happening and that someone was taking notice," says Sue Craggs, from Nottinghamshire's continuing professional development department. A working party was set up to explore how heads could support each other.

The result is Heads Count, a scheme under which more than 80 of the county's heads have volunteered for training in how to listen supportively to colleagues. All new Nottinghamshire heads are automatically assigned a supporter from the scheme, and any serving head can approach anyone named on the list of supporters on the website. "It is a slow building of a process, led by heads," says Sue Craggs. "It is heads giving of their passion for education to other heads. It's that very passion that lights them up and burns them out at the same time."

Many of the supporters volunteered as a result of their own "very negative experiences of having felt completely alone", says Sue Craggs. All had at least one day of training, and half - around 42 - had a further three days'

training in counselling and coaching.

In the week she was retiring after 18 years as head of Carlton Netherfield infant and nursery school, Christine Taylor took a call from Pam Tulley.

"She said she'd had a cri de coeur from a head, and would I be willing to support him." Chris Taylor - a member of the working party and an early volunteer for the Heads Count scheme - agreed. "He phoned me and things were pretty bad for him. I realised what a big thing it was, how important.

And I thought there were two things I must say instantly to him: that it was completely confidential, and that if it was not helping he should tell me."

The head told her he would like to meet - "if you can bear to see a grown man cry". A couple of days later, he was in her office, where he spent an hour and a half explaining his plight. He was two years into his second headship, and had health and staffing problems, and an unwieldy site to contend with. "He stood up to leave and we hugged each other," says Chris Taylor. "I felt, 'I'm going to join you'. I warmed to him as a person."

For Clive Richardson, 48, the first two years at Bishop Alexander primary school, in Newark, had gone well. Then, he says, "it all went pear-shaped".

Grumpy at home with his wife (also a primary head) and child, he felt ineffectual at school. "I could see I was doing none of my roles very well."

Chris Taylor and Clive Richardson had several meetings. At the second meeting, Mr Richardson had clearly brightened, and they got down to a practical agenda. "He seemed more ready to sit down and say, 'What is the problem here and what within the resources of the LEA can we bring in to sort it out?'" says Chris Taylor. Clive Richardson says Ms Taylor never offered him an answer, "but she gave me an opportunity to talk everything through. I had to have somebody who knew what my job was like. With someone who was just a good listener, it wouldn't have worked. It's the best thing that ever happened for me, and I'd recommend any head to find someone."

The two became friends. "We stopped meeting over sheets of file paper and started sending holiday postcards," says Chris Taylor. The meetings helped her, too. Newly retired, she was finding her days rather empty and appreciated feeling needed again. She has since worked with two newly appointed heads but believes there is a limit to how long retired heads can effectively support colleagues, given the pace of change in the profession.

Initially, it seemed that all the heads in Nottinghamshire wanted to be a supporter but none wanted to be supported. "There remains a culture of 'we have no weakness'," says Sue Craggs. "We are trying constantly to combat this cultural thing of 'I have to do it all myself'."

The authority publicises the scheme - on which it has spent pound;28,000, more than half of which has come in grants from the National College for School Leadership - through a newsletter, stickers and posters and tries to remove the stigma associated with asking for help. Richard Cooper, 52-year-old head of Hawtonville junior school, in Newark, has been both supporter and supported. He undertook the training, and has helped new heads; he also approached Sharon Jefferies, of Newark Orchard school, for help when, with his school roll falling, he had to make redundancies. He contrasts the non-judgmental support she offered with another time he faced difficulties, before Heads Count existed. Then, he went to a senior inspector in the authority, and felt that his leadership came under scrutiny as a result. "Judgments were made," he says. "But under Heads Count, they're not made. Or at least not acted upon."

Supporters do have a code of practice, and will refer issues onwards if they feel out of their depth. Only a handful of pairings have broken down; because heads approach supporters individually, the local authority does not know how many are using the scheme.

Sue Craggs says that Nottinghamshire LEAnow recognises how "attritional"

the job of a head can be. "We can't really address that, but we need the means to help them achieve some kind of worklife balance while they are at work."

Former head John Illingworth (see right) thinks such schemes are sticking plasters on the gaping wound of headteacher stress. But Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers and a Nottinghamshire head at Sherwood junior school until last July, says that peer support can help heads take control of the job again. "Initiatives like this are important," he says. "Sometimes all people need is a chat and reassurance."

Pam Tulley prefers to speak of a "local education service" rather than a local education authority. Heads Count is an important aspect of her legacy in the county and is the sort of scheme, she believes, that can ensure the continuing relevance of local education officers. "Schools will allow us to influence, shape and lead if the quality of what we are doing is right,"

she says.

For more information on Heads Count, contact Nottinghamshire's CPD advisory team: The Eastbourne Centre, Station Road, Sutton in Ashfield, Notts NG17 5FF. Tel: 01623 466 724

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