No one can teach you to be a head

18th January 2008 at 00:00
Being a drama teacher, I am used to making a fool of myself in public, but I risk being shunned by several school leaders when I admit that I enjoyed the National Professional Qualification for Headship course.

The tutors were brimming with knowledge and experience, the "face to face" days (despite the David Brent-style name) were a fantastic opportunity to share ideas and problems with like-minded aspirant heads, and the final-stage residential challenged us to examine our own vision, values and "non-negotiables".

But the idea that a barrowload of spiral-bound booklets, a few "simulations" on the Talk 2 Learn website and an in-tray exercise prepares you for headship has often had me laughing myself to sleep.

I have been a principal since September 2007 and concluded that you cannot teach anyone how to be an outstanding school leader, and you certainly cannot impart the skills and experience needed to succeed in this role. The only way to learn is to do it for real.

Colleagues and friends on the NPQH course would freely admit that their areas of weakness were their knowledge of whole-school finances and building budgets as well as understanding the various data sources and strategic planning. Very few of these issues were explored in any depth. Instead, we were encouraged to "find ourselves as leaders", "discover what leadership styles we liked to use" (only to plot them on some kind of graph) and to engage in role-plays, which I thoroughly enjoyed but more for the fact that they never remotely resembled real life: I remember being told off once because "a head wouldn't say that, Ben!" I replied: "I have, and I would!"

At the age of 31 (30 on appointment), the governors of Manor Community College took a real risk on hiring me. It would have been much easier to recruit a "safe pair of hands", but they didn't because they wanted to take the opportunity to embrace change and to move the school forward.

We have improved quality assurance procedures, set more challenging targets, fully engaged in tackling the significant attendance and behavioural issues of a minority of students, revisited the vision and values of the school, started to embed the specialism, begun to rebrand the school and challenge our poor reputation, which is unjustified and unfair.

I am not popular at present because I have commissioned a full review of the school and introduced departmental self-evaluation forms to establish where we are now, help to complete the school's self-evaluation form and to focus minds on our improvement agenda. The league tables for 2007 have just been published and newspapers are keen to respond negatively because, statistically speaking, ours was the worst-performing school in Cambridgeshire for attainment. However, we were the second-best school in the county for contextual value-added. We had a very impressive score of 1024.3.

Surely that means we do a great job? Schools minister Jim Knight has praised schools such as ours, saying "these schools should be very proud of themselves... Many are in challenging circumstances and they have refused to let this hold them back." Encouraging. If only this were the consensus.

Ben Slade, Principal, Manor Community College in Cambridge.

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