Small wonder

26th November 2010 at 00:00
Very few primary heads make the leap to leading a secondary, and those that do are greeted with shock and incredulity. Hannah Frankel reports

It was a nervous start for the new head. As Angela Briggs pulled into the school car park on her first day, she accidentally reversed into a brick wall.

But greater hazards hovered in the staffroom. "The staff were absolutely stunned when I walked in," says Mrs Briggs. "You could have heard a pin drop." She may have had a reputation as an outstanding headteacher, but it was as an outstanding primary head. And this was a secondary school.

"There were a few raised eyebrows to say the least," she says. "The senior managers were lovely, but others took a `wait and see what happens' approach."

It was a similar story when she met other secondary heads in the area. "Some were massively supportive, some thought I was from Mars and others were sceptical in the extreme."

At the time of her appointment to Thomas Sumpter in Scunthorpe - now Melior Community College following a merger with South Leys - Mrs Briggs was thought to be the only primary head to take charge of a secondary school in the country. That was seven years ago, but there has not exactly been a stampede following in her wake.

It is not unheard of for secondary heads to take charge of primary schools, but it is uncommon to go in the opposite direction. The drop in salary may deter heads from switching to the primary sector, but there are a number of ways they can expand their empires to take in younger children.

If a primary school is struggling, it seems a natural step to ask a neighbouring secondary head to intervene. Secondary heads also end up running primaries at increasingly popular all-through schools, for pupils aged three to 18.

But primary heads taking over secondary schools are a rare species indeed. Perhaps it reflects the perceived gap in status between primary and secondary schools, or a lack of confidence.

"It's certainly not a conventional route for primary heads to take over secondary schools," says Sion Humphreys, assistant secretary in charge of secondary education at the National Association of Head Teachers. "In theory, the NPQH (National Professional Qualification for Headship) prepares them for leadership in any school. In practice, it needs a handful of trailblazers to show primary heads the way."

Mrs Briggs was certainly a pioneer. Her first headship was at Henderson Avenue Primary in Scunthorpe - the largest primary in North Lincolnshire. With 750 pupils, it was bigger than five of its neighbouring secondary schools.

In 2002, she was asked by the local authority to spend two days a week helping the head at Thomas Sumpter, a 1,000-pupil secondary school that was experiencing similar difficulties to the ones her primary had originally experienced.

"There were problems with the budget, problems with behaviour - a whole raft of concerns," she says.

Henderson Avenue Primary had also been a "school of concern" when Mrs Briggs had joined, but within four years it was judged by Ofsted to be "good with outstanding features". She felt relatively confident she could perform a similar turnaround at Thomas Sumpter.

When the head of Thomas Sumpter subsequently resigned, she became interim and then full-time head. Mrs Briggs enjoyed the "try before you buy" approach. She doubts she would have put herself forward for the job without having worked alongside the secondary beforehand. Her ability to manage large teams also put her in a good position to enter the school, but she still describes her learning curve as "vertical".

Unfortunately, not all primary-to-secondary shifters have the opportunity to sample before they move.

Jo Edwards had no experience of working in the secondary sector when she applied to become head of Serlby Park, a three-to-18 school in Doncaster. But Ms Edwards did know about driving up key stage 2 results - an identified area of weakness at Serlby Park - from her 10 years as a primary head.

She also knew about bringing communities together. She had overseen the amalgamation of her school, Moorside Community Primary in Halifax, with a local infant school in 2004, transforming Moorside Community into a three- to-11 learning community.

A year later, North Border Infant and Junior Schools and Bircotes and Harworth Community merged to form Serlby Park. In 2008, it needed a new principal.

A large advertisement was placed in the secondary section of The TES jobs pages, while a smaller ad was tucked away inside the primary pages. "It just goes to show the split in our minds," Ms Edwards says. "The primarysecondary distinction harks back to a Victorian structure. A modern school and its leadership should be less about background and more about creating a strong balance of skills that covers all phases."

But two years ago, she was far less self-assured. It took a great deal of persuasion from a close friend before Ms Edwards would even consider applying. She was unsure about whether she could cope in a secondary setting, let alone handle challenging teenagers. The interview process suggests that other primary heads were just as uncertain. Of the six shortlisted candidates, she was the only primary head.

"I think most primary heads don't realise how skilled they are, and that included myself," admits Ms Edwards. "They underestimate their own abilities."

The three-day interview process resembled The Apprentice, the reality TV show with Lord (Alan) Sugar. Every morning the contestants packed their bags in case they were sent home that evening.

But the skills Ms Edwards offered matched the ones the school was looking for. She had a track record of good leadership, managing budgets, drawing teams together and building trust between different communities. By the end of the process, she was hired.

"There was no resistance from the staff about being led by a primary head," Ms Edwards insists. "It was more bemusement and sideways looks when I made a typically `primary' suggestion about displays, department meetings or the pattern of the school year."

It also took her time to adjust to secondary school expectations. "I found the use of secondary jargon very confusing at first - there is lots of it and secondary colleagues don't even realise they are using it."

Being willing to ask for help or support is a must, Ms Edwards believes, and now she cannot recommend the experience enough. "I go from having tea with my headboy and headgirl in the sixth form to watching a pre-school nativity play," she says. "There is such a richness and depth of experience."

Now in her seventh year at a secondary school, Mrs Briggs has enjoyed the challenge just as much - but she has had to prove herself every step of the way.

Although she had been a familiar face around Thomas Sumpter before her appointment, most staff were unaware of her exact role. When she became their head, there was a mixed response.

"I had to earn my stripes and tread quite carefully," Mrs Briggs recalls. "I was highly respected in the primary sector, but none of that existed any more. I had to build my reputation all over again. Some people were definitely waiting for me to fail."

That moment never came. In fact, the near-failing school she took over is now rated "good with outstanding features" by Ofsted. Despite serving an area of severe deprivation, its value-added scores last year were the second highest in the authority.

Even if primary heads do not take over secondary or all-through schools like Mrs Briggs, there is nothing to stop them from sharing their expertise.

Andy Nicholas has done just that. He has been head of Lea Valley Primary in Haringey, north London, for 26 years and has a wealth of experience that is just as relevant to secondaries as to primaries.

Lea Valley Primary has its challenges - not least because 80 to 90 per cent of reception-aged pupils do not speak English - but last year Ofsted found it to be "outstanding". In recognition of his achievements, Mr Nicholas was approached in 2006 to become one of the first National Leaders of Education (NLE), a National College initiative that pairs outstanding leaders with struggling schools (see box on page 17). For the following three years, he took over or worked alongside six failing primary schools.

Last year he was offered a new challenge: to support the Business Academy Bexley in Kent. Since its launch in 2003, the three-to-19 school has been beset with problems - from the crumbling Norman Foster-designed building to stubbornly low results and a high turnover of heads (six in seven years). Could a primary head really improve its fortunes where so many others had failed?

Mr Nicholas does not see why not. "I had certain reservations, but all placements are different, whether they are primary or secondary," he says. "Fundamentally, my approach is the same: to evaluate a school's needs before creating a robust action plan."

His brief was to purely look at the primary phase, but in order to have any sort of impact he had to explore the strategic aspects of the whole academy. That includes looking at behaviour, the academy's vision and the role of middle leadership.

There are certain things Mr Nicholas has struggled to get his head round. The first is the sheer size of the project. Lea Valley Primary has 470 pupils and eight car parking spaces; at The Business Academy Bexley, there are 1,600 pupils and 200 parking spaces.

"There are some issues that exceed my primary school experience," Mr Nicholas admits. "I'm not used to having my own human resources person. And I'm not in charge of the budget. The academy has a bursar and a finance person that takes care of it for you."

But the response he has had from staff has minimised any teething problems. "They were so fed up with the level of non-achievement that they were ready for change," Mr Nicholas insists. "There was no resentment about my background. They were like sponges ready to soak up any knowledge and advice we brought with us."

Simon Barber, who was head of Silkstone Primary in Barnsley for five years, is hoping to replicate such success at nearby St Michael's Catholic and CofE High. Just four weeks after joining the school in September as its new head, Ofsted inspectors paid a visit.

"In one sense, it was a nightmare because I had only just started, but it was also a good way to find out our strengths and areas that needed development," Mr Barber says. "It was a very bonding, uniting experience. It meant I got to know people very quickly."

Since arriving, the staff have been "fantastically warm and welcoming", he says. Although he is still acclimatising to some differences - the busy regimented timetable, having a personal assistant, the size of the school and all the qualifications on offer - some things remain the same.

"Learning is still learning and pupils and Ofsted still have the same expectations around progress," he says. "The issues that need to be resolved are the same."

Mr Barber will also oversee the high school's amalgamation with two primaries - Holy Cross Deanery CofE and St Dominic's Catholic - to create a three-to-16 school, opening in September 2012. "The greatest challenges can produce the greatest rewards, and that is certainly true in this case," Mr Barber says.

"I'm loving it. I feel invigorated by working in a new way and with new people. I have two years to get my head around the secondary role and will then have a good handle on both ends of the scale when the new school opens."

Even though it is more common for secondary heads to take over primary schools, it is not always straightforward for them either. When Gwyneth Evans took the helm at Bede Academy, a three-to-18 school in Blyth, Northumberland, she came from a secondary background.

When it opened last year, she was principal of the secondary years, while the primary years were led by Liz Clubbs. But following Ms Clubbs' retirement in the summer, Ms Evans is now principal of the entire academy.

"Ms Clubbs and I had to work tirelessly together to create a shared vision for the academy and to learn from each other's specialities," she says.

"I don't even like using the words `primary' or `secondary' because I think it can create a divisive mentality. We stress the `all-throughness' of this academy. We want to become one staff who talk and learn from each other, so we can gather the most knowledge and skills about the development of a child from three to 18."

This does not mean dispensing with age differentiation, though. The younger pupils at Bede Academy have a shorter day than the older ones, for example, while a tie and blazer is only expected of those in Year 6 and upwards. "We're not trying to create mini-secondary pupils or abandoning primary culture," insists Ms Evans. "It's just about sharing core values throughout and ensuring that education is as seamless as possible."

It is important not to underestimate the scale of the challenge, though, says Paul Prest. He was head of Shaw Wood Primary in Doncaster before becoming chief executive of Academy 360, an all-through four-to-16 school that replaced Quarry View Primary and Pennywell schools in Sunderland, two years ago.

The academy opened on its predecessors' sites, more than half a mile apart, before moving to a new building in September last year.

"Raising aspirations among older pupils who have become disillusioned by education has been a challenge," Mr Prest says. "As a primary school leader, for the most part, you work with young people who are enthused and excited by the opportunity to learn - and for those who aren't, there is the chance to change that. With older pupils, it is a much bigger challenge to reverse deep-seated views."

But Mr Prest also views it as an opportunity to be innovative, and to watch pupils grow and develop from the age of four. "You can really embed in them the value of learning from a young age, instilling that right through until they leave us," he says.

So why don't more primary heads take the leap? Mrs Briggs puts it down to a lack of interest. Many primary heads are passionately committed to a specific age range, and are not keen to swap that for a classroom full of stroppy 16 year olds. They also lack the opportunity to work in secondary schools beforehand, she adds. Without that experience, the fear of the unknown can be prohibitive. Secondments in secondary schools would allow more primary heads to spread their wings, she suggests.

"Primary heads need to realise that they really can do it," she says. "The skills are generic even if the practices are different."

There will always be some significant differences, however. Most primary schools are small enough for the head to have a direct impact on every member of staff. In secondaries, the head usually has to work through other members of staff.

But some primary heads will feel better supported by their new sizeable senior management team (SMT) at a secondary, argues John Dunford, former general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. "In primary schools, you have a smaller SMT but your area of expertise needs to be wider in many ways," he says. "Whenever you move schools or move positions, you need to adapt. That is far more important than your professional background."

And sometimes being unfamiliar with a sector is a bonus. By simply asking why, Mrs Briggs forced her staff to re-evaluate what they had always done but never previously questioned. Instead of taking received wisdom for granted, they had to think again about the rationale behind it.

"I asked the basic questions just because I needed a better understanding, but it also helps to challenge ineffective practice," she says.

If the governors are open-minded enough to appoint a primary head to a secondary head position, there is nothing to stop primary heads from flourishing. In fact, as Mrs Briggs illustrates, their very "weaknesses" could quickly become their strengths.

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