Umbar Sharif would never have imagined she'd be leading a sixth form consortium just six years after she qualified. Charlotte Phillips reports
It's been a meteoric rise by any standards. Assistant head of year at 22, head of year three years later, at 28 one of the youngest to be accepted on to a fast-track scheme for heads, and now, at 29, about to become director of a sixth form consortium. But as Umbar Sharif prepares for her first senior leadership role, she insists it is not ambition but pupils who have driven her career forward.
Initially, Umbar didn't even plan to be a teacher. After studying English, she wanted to become a lawyer. Then, visiting her old primary school for work experience, she was assigned a small group of children struggling with literacy. One boy stood out. "He was naughty, but I thought that I could do justice to his needs," she says. At the end of the half-hour session, she got a hug, realised how much she'd got out of helping him - and decided to change careers. Instead of law, she opted for a PGCE course at the Institute of Education, University of London, discovering early on that her reaction to the potentially intimidating behaviour of some pupils was one of curiosity.
On the first day of her two-month placement at a secondary school in Tower Hamlets, east London, one boy was so rude to everyone in authority that Umbar wondered what lay behind the facade. "I thought, why does he behave like this? What makes him tick?" It's this desire to find the reasons why that has influenced much of her career, even when it means confronting situations that could have other people running for the shelter of the staffroom.
Umbar, who is one of four children, grew up with supportive parents and teachers who encouraged her to aim for the top. But from an early age, she was aware that not all her contemporaries shared her confidence or her positive experiences - and that this was something that needed to be put right. That's why she has opted for posts in challenging schools and why she's so fiercely committed to the children in her care, especially when she feels that their education has let them down.
It was also behind her decision to start her teaching career in her home borough of Waltham Forest, London, where she was offered an NQT post at Kelmscott School. Today, it's an improving school; back in 2000 it was a tough environment for a new teacher. The emphasis was on survival and Umbar's experiences, good and bad, helped mould her leadership style.
Her affinity for pastoral care stood out, and at the end of her first year she was asked to take on a Year 8 group. They had a challenging reputation and it wasn't hard to work out why. "I walked up the stairs hearing the thumping and screaming," she says, recalling the first time she met them.
"As I opened the door, a chair went flying from one side of the room to the other."
Communication, though not always easy, was the key. Other teachers had preconceptions; parents were sometimes hostile. She carried on talking, persuading colleagues and carers to look past the issues at the children, and she started a mentoring scheme, recruiting older children to act as role models. "I knew we had to work together to get this class into shape,"
she says. Once the right support was in place, expectations changed and, with them, the children's behaviour and achievements. The key is to prove you care, she says. But it's not about mothering. Try being soft and you'll be eaten alive. Instead, the care factor comes through hard, though not harsh, discipline.
It was something that her next post, at Bethnal Green Technology College, would test to the limit. The school was already struggling: in 2004, just 17 per cent of its pupils achieved five good GCSE passes, including English and maths, compared with a national average of 42.7 per cent. Swearing, sexually explicit language and pupils walking out of lessons were everyday occurrences. Her interview lesson was the toughest she had ever taught. It was also one of the most exhilarating.
In September 2004, aged just 25, she started at the school, with responsibility for literacy across the curriculum and her own Year 11 class. Her first lesson of term was scheduled for period six on a Friday.
She'd spent the summer planning her lessons, working out how to brighten up the classroom, even buying a rainbow coloured sari to put on one of the walls. Her first lesson was ready to run on PowerPoint, her worksheets ready for distribution.
There was just one problem - 15 minutes into the lesson, the classroom was still completely empty. When they finally turned up, the boys blanked her, avoiding eye contact, listening to their iPods and talking. Then they tried to leave. Quickly, Umbar got up and blocked the door. "I was nervous, but I stood my ground. I said: 'Boys, you can leave the classroom after you answer one question.'" She had their attention. "In 10 years' time," she asked them, "Where do you want to be?"
Their response was a sea of disbelief, followed by feelings of frustration and fear they had never previously articulated. They'd had 11 teachers in Year 10. They had no faith in the school or themselves, and no respect for its staff. When one boy said: "Miss, how can you help us when we've failed already?" she felt a sense of burning anger on their behalf, coupled with a desire to turn things round.
While she established a relationship with her pupils, she had to do the same thing with her colleagues before she could introduce her literacy programme. She organised an inset day, but kicked off by getting teachers to share their feelings with each other. When the session ended with a standing ovation, she knew she'd done the right thing.
After an Ofsted inspection at the beginning of her second year, the school was put in special measures. But at a feedback session her lessons, and her literacy initiatives, were singled out for praise. Despite her enviable track record, it came as a shock when the deputy head who had recruited her suggested Umbar should be preparing for a senior role. She assumed that years in the job counted when it came to reaching for the top.
Then, in March 2006, she heard about the Future Leaders programme and everything came together. The scheme, part-funded by the Government, was looking for talented leaders, giving them a leg up into their first headships in challenging schools. But it wasn't the number of years or a desire to lead for leadership's sake that counted. Its organisers wanted the natural leaders whose concern, above all, was to give all children the same educational opportunities.
In September, Umbar will take up her first senior leadership role as director of the Islington Consortium, the combined sixth form resources of three local London schools. She'll be in overall charge of everything from the finances to curriculum development, working with the heads of the three schools to manage the resources.
She's looking forward to the challenge. Her aim is to give her pupils a catch-up dose of the self-esteem that children from affluent backgrounds take for granted, giving them not just the qualifications they need but the confidence to use them to get anywhere and do anything they want
Umbar Sharif's CV
2000 - 2001 NQT, Kelmscott School, Waltham Forest
2001 - 2003 Assistant head of year
2003 - 2004 Head of year 2004 - 2006 Literacyco-ordinator, Bethnal Green Technology College
2006 - 2007 Future Leaders residency year and training at Highbury Grove School. Appointed director, Islington Consortium
What is Future Leaders?
The Future Leaders scheme aims to fast-track candidates for leadership positions in challenging urban schools. The programme's stated aim is for participants to become part of a leadership team within 12 months, and a headteacher within four years.
After two residential weekends and a 10-day course, the first 20-strong cohort started in schools last September. They are mentored by the head, work as members of the senior leadership team and must carry out two specific projects during the year.
Future Leaders are drawn from the private sector as well as from existing teachers, and are paid in line with their previous salary, to a cap of Pounds 50,000 a year.
The scheme is run by the National College for School Leadership, Absolute Return for Kids and the Specialist Schools and Academies' Trust.