Pedalling to the rescue

16th June 2006 at 01:00
It's a tough job but someone certainly wants to do it. Jon Allnutt enjoys life in the fast lane as an interim headteacher

The phone rings and before you know it you're off on another assignment.

Sometimes within days you have left home behind and are in a completely new environment meeting new people, facing interesting challenges and absorbing information as fast as possible.

Sound exciting? So what's the work? Holiday rep, construction engineer, aid worker? Well, no. It's interim headship.

Some six years ago I made a deliberate decision to become an interim head and yes, the work is exciting and never ever dull. I love the variety and wouldn't now want to return to my former life as a substantive head. OK, so there are some drawbacks, such as not having the same degree of security, but overall I have to say this phase of my working life has been the most interesting to date and it suits me.

Most of my interim posts have been in primary schools which have been in special measures or considered to be at risk, but in every case they have been in the process of inspection, or about to be inspected. The work is always demanding, but there's satisfaction in doing everything possible to help schools during a difficult time. Although the schools were very different, they often had similar problems. In most cases these were: low morale among staff, governors and parents; deteriorating organisation systems and communication; important financial information not available and over-expenditure; under-developed assessment and the means to bring about school improvement unclear; professional expectations not well understood; a backlog of personnel issues.

I guess this should be enough to put me off, but it doesn't, and frankly, the more I do the more I want to continue. The advantage of this work is that you store up a wealth of experiences which can be employed in a variety of circumstances. You absolutely never stop learning.

What are the expectations for an interim head? Forget anything you may have heard about caretaking. Don't get me wrong though, interim headship is primarily about maintaining what is working well and restoring, or helping to develop, that which isn't. Usually it's necessary to determine priorities from quite a large number of outstanding demands and requirements. Normally this involves distinguishing between the important and the urgent, reinstating systems and avoiding unnecessary initiatives or distractions.

Building or restoring confidence among the school community and helping staff to make progress in ways that are focused upon improvement and which are manageable, achievable and sustainable is a common priority. This, of course, also involves encouraging all with an interest in the school to become active participants. The more self-sustaining and self-improving a school can become the better.

At the point of takeover, new heads can and should benefit from interim work since developments will have involved close liaison with the local education authority and whole-school community, be based on sound practice and not subject to controversy.

Will there continue to be a need for interim heads? To be frank, I don't think the shortfalls in recruitment to headteacher posts will be resolved in the near future. With caring and experienced interim management the situation can at least be a positive opportunity for school communities.

An interim head can: bring stability until a new head can be appointed; bring a wide range of expertise and can be considered impartial in making decisions; help to bring change where the education authority and governors consider it to be desirable; maintain or establish ethos and expectations based on good practice; enable a smooth transition for the incoming head.

During the past six years, Jon Allnutt has worked in schools in a wide area, including London, Buckingham and Rutland

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