Souped-up support

12th January 2007 at 00:00
Heads of challenging schools need help to build better networks, says study

A NATIONAL strategy is needed to support home-grown networks of heads who run schools in challenging circumstances, according to new research.

Leaders of such schools are often kept going by supportive teams of staff that they build around them, and by informal groups of like-minded heads in similar schools, says the study published by the National College for School Leadership.

Heads' capacity to build their own support networks is a vital skill in challenging schools, the study says. And networks work best when they are not externally imposed.

The research was carried out by Alan Flintham, retired head of a comprehensive school in the deprived former coalfields of Nottinghamshire.

Based on interviews with heads of primary, middle and secondary schools in similar circumstances, it looks at the qualities of such leaders and what drives and sustains them.

"You need a particular skill set to lead a school in challenging circumstances well," said Mr Flintham. "That skill is based around the emotional end of the leadership competence spectrum. It's to do with the capacity to build relationships, trust, teams of people who share the same vision and set of values."

His study found that such heads are energised by the challenge of making a difference to their schools and communities. They have a strong belief in the schools' potential for success. They like the excitement and unpredictability of their role. One said: "Every day is potentially exciting as you can never guarantee what's going to happen - the adrenaline rush when crises develop is strangely alluring."

These leaders often draw support from networks of like-minded colleagues.

Hearing others' stories of similar schools was seen as a powerful support mechanism.

The heads also cited a need to preserve a healthy work-life balance and the capacity to keep school and life outside it separate. One who took part in the study is Polly Honeychurch, head of Cottage Grove primary in inner-city Portsmouth. The large council estate it serves has high levels of unemployment, crime and drug use.

A major challenge for her school is parents' lack of interest in education.

But she says she wouldn't swap her school for an "easier life" in a middle-class suburb.

"No two days are ever the same," she said. "I've been at the school for seven years and I'm not thinking about moving yet because the school and the job are continuously changing and I still have goals to strive at."

Ms Honeychurch said she is supported by regular meetings with heads of other Portsmouth schools in similar circumstances. "There's a group of three of us who all started headship at the same time," she said. "We're all in this type of school and we meet regularly. One thing to come out of the report was the need for heads to refresh their own well-being. If you don't do that you cannot lead your school."

"What's good about leading schools in challenging circumstances?" is at: www.ncsl.org.ukpublicationsindex.cfm

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