Lucky in Leeds;Briefing;School Management;Interview;Anne Clarke

2nd April 1999 at 01:00

Gerald Haigh meets Anne Clarke, who says good fortune and teamwork took her to the top

Want to hear an encouraging career development story? Try this for size. Anne Clarke, head of a London secondary modern girls school, enjoyed her holidays in West Yorkshire and decided that her next move would be to that area. Not, as she makes clear, that she was going to take any old job just to get away from the Smoke.

"I wanted a big, non-selective, mixed comprehensive, a good school not a failing one, and I wanted to move to Yorkshire."

So, she says, "I got the big yellow book and I circled all the possible schools ... There were three that fitted the bill and within two weeks one of them was advertised." That was two years ago.

The school she applied to was Benton Park, a comprehensive with 1,750 pupils in Rawdon, on the prosperous northern outskirts of Leeds, next stop the Pennines.

Did she apply? Did she get the job? Did you doubt it?

Born in Stoke on Trent, Mrs Clarke graduated from London University in languages and business studies and started work in Bristol with ICI. Some of her friends there were teachers.

"It seemed an interesting job where you were able to use your initiative - something I wasn't allowed to do," she says.

So she took a PGCE at Crewe and Alsager College and embarked on her teaching career in 1977 in Harrow. She was to stay in London and the Home Counties for 20 years, first in modern languages departments, then into pastoral posts - head of year, head of careers.

In 1989 she went to The Beacon school in Banstead, Surrey, as deputy head, staying only a couple of years before moving back to London, to to her first headship at Coombe Girls school in Kingston.

It had been a quick climb up the ladder, with a number of moves. "I worked my way round the London boroughs. I found I'd be doing a job for two or three years, and then I'd feel on top of it and be ready for a change. I've been lucky, I've got every promotion I've gone for."

Mrs Clarke uses the word "lucky" quite a lot, but to talk to her is to realise that she is more than capable of making her own opportunities. The crucial time for her, she feels, came when, as a senior teacher at Stanley Park school in Sutton, she was made acting deputy head.

"The head left and the deputy became acting head and, as the only senior teacher, I moved up. I then had to think what to do - I felt that when a new head came we would all slot back to our original positions."

The answer, she felt, was to apply, from her acting deputy's position, for a deputy headship in another school. "You have to capitalise on the situation. The acting head gave me a good recommendation. He said he didn't want to lose me, but that I was in a position of strength - applying for a post which I was already doing."

So, she became deputy head of the Beacon school where, of course, she was "very lucky".

"I was in charge of the lower-school site, with a head who delegated responsibility." It was an experience that qualified her well to be head of Coombe Park, where she stayed for six-and-a-half years.

In 1997 came the move to Yorkshire. Taking over a successful school from a long-serving predecessor makes its own sort of demands.

"I came here following someone who had been very successful for 22 years and I joined a competent and experienced senior management team. I felt more comfortable knowing that I'd led a school before - it gives you the confidence to lead the team. You can get moving more quickly."

"Team" is another of Mrs Clarke's words, and she speaks highly of the way her senior colleagues have fallen in with her.

"I do like to be a team person, and we work well together."

Part of her secret lies in her ability to put people at ease. Outwardly relaxed and confident, she has that precious gift of having a visitor joking with her like a friend within 10 minutes.

You have to wonder where, as the new head of an already well regarded school, you might start to make an impression. Mrs Clarke's immediate focus was to be on the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom. And to demonstrate that commitment she was going to teach regularly - which, given that this is a very large school, was a significant statement.

"You have to make it a priority," she says. "Teaching is the most important thing in a school."

She also regularly visits lessons. "They know when I'm coming. I invite myself in as a guest to observe good teaching, because the teaching here is very good.

"I'm not there as an inspector or in a critical role, but to get to know the pupils and curriculum and to observe. I consider it a privilege."

There must have been some culture shock in her move north. Mrs Clarke tells how, shortly after she was appointed, one of the governors was approached by a local person who said. "I hear you've appointed a female head from the South, with red nail varnish and a red sports car." (She admits to the car, but denies the nail varnish.) She felt under scrutiny. "My predecessor was highly thought of in the community, so obviously everyone wanted to know what I was like. Some wondered and some were very pleased."

Although Mrs Clarke has brought some fresh ideas - a recent multi-cultural week, for example, with Asian dance and African music was something of a new venture in this fairly reserved, white, middle-class community - she believes firmly in traditional school values.

"I'm very keen on strong discipline. In a big school you have to have order." There are, she says, no short cuts. In the end it's a matter of all staff, with the head and other senior members leading the way, being relentlessly consistent about expectations.

"It's always having a presence around the school. You can't give a message and then never be seen around. We watch the children leave, we do gate duty - it's making sure that the little things don't build up. The pupils like it, and they know where they stand."

What Mrs Clarke does not say - perhaps she takes it for granted - is that discipline only really works if you make it clear that you like and respect your pupils. And as she goes around the school, the warmth of her relationship and her knowledge of the Benton Park community is obvious.

"I do like working with young people," she says. "It's important to get out there and mix with them. This is a great job, even in today's climate."

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