Talking head

26th October 2007 at 01:00
At a time when there is a dearth of people taking on the top job, Jill Berry urges reluctant teachers to be brave and take the plunge.When I was a young teacher, I thought being a head or a deputy looked like a pretty lousy job. Deputies seemed to spend a disproportionate time on discipline issues, such as who did actually throw the first loo roll on the school bus? And the head was a rather remote figure, busy, stressed and out of touch with staff and pupils.

I could understand the appeal of being a head of department, but who would want the pressure and responsibility of going right to the top? Compared with chief executives in other professions it wasn't even well paid. Anyway, I used to think there was something a bit silly about senior management, particularly the way they danced at the staff Christmas party.

Now I'm a head myself, and I think it's the best job in school - a phrase my predecessor used, but which I only fully appreciate now I'm starting my eighth year in the post. There's much more fun in the role than those looking from the outside might appreciate. I still have a lot of contact with the pupils, which is a priority for me, and I share in their successes and support them in their disappointments. When a pupil you've helped through a rocky patch achieves something they can be proud of, it's thrilling. I have far greater autonomy to take decisions and make changes I believe are in the best interests of the pupils, and good for the teaching and support staff.

I set the tone, too. We have a briefing each morning and I know it's been a particularly successful event if we can start the day by sharing something that makes us laugh. Headship is about influence, as well as responsibility. It means I get to play a major role in the staff Christmas pantomime, which pulls us all together at a time when we're particularly tired and stressed. When you've seen the head in green tights as Peter Pan, or as the Wicked Queen in Snow White, it does make an impression.

There are constraints, pressures and difficult decisions, but I have many more exhilarating days than bad ones. As the head of an independent school with a background in maintained schools, I do appreciate that I have more autonomy than some of my state school colleagues. We don't suffer from initiative overload to quite the same degree, and we have the freedom and flexibility to exercise choices that we think will work to the benefit of the pupils and the staff in our particular schools.

I've taught all the Year 7 pupils each year, so I know every individual in the senior school - and they know me, which is hugely beneficial. To be able to take a whole-school assembly and address a pupil by name is very satisfying. I sing with the choir, go on trips, support drama events and sports fixtures - whatever I can fit in. I didn't realise how exciting and noisy water polo could be until I went to my first match. I sometimes only have time to call into an event for five minutes, but people remember the head was there, and was interested. People do care what the head thinks.

This is a job that you perhaps have to do in order to appreciate its appeal. Over the past 27 years, I've worked with 10 heads and 17 deputies. As with teaching, there's no blueprint for success in senior leadership. These are jobs that everyone does in their own way. I've spoken to deputies about whether they will go for headship, to receive the answer, "Oh no, I couldn't do it like Mrs Clegg". Of course, they wouldn't do it like Mrs Clegg. How many potentially excellent heads are there out there who don't go for it because they don't believe in themselves (women are particularly guilty of this, in my experience) or they don't appreciate how much pleasure there can be in the role?

And I don't find it a lonely job. I have an excellent senior leadership team, a superb PA and many staff I admire and respect who treat me as a human being, not just as "the head".

The contact with the staff, the parents, the governors and those beyond the school makes headship varied, stimulating and rewarding. At a recent deputies' conference I was involved with, the speaker reassured the delegates that, "the deputies run the school while the head jumps about a bit and shows off". And yes, there's an element of that, I admit.

Heads have a role beyond their schools, too, and need to be out there working with other groups to influence, as far as they can, the way education develops. I have particularly enjoyed working with the Girls' Schools Association over the past eight years, an experience that has brought me into contact with some inspirational leaders.

I'm also involved in independent school inspections through the Independent Schools Inspectorate (the private sector equivalent of Ofsted). Unlike Ofsted, ISI inspectors are serving or recently retired senior leaders in independent schools. The inspections are a great opportunity to visit other, similar schools, to share ideas and reflect on the very best teaching and learning. It's a system of peer review that is mutually beneficial and stimulating. Heads have to be dedicated to their own schools, and able to look beyond their own schools at the same time.

In the coming years, as so many heads reach retirement, we will need significant numbers of teachers who can see the appeal of deputy headship and headship. Those who have the temperament for this have to believe in themselves. They will do it their own way and learn during the process.

In 27 years, I can honestly say I've never been bored - of how many professions is that true, I wonder? If you're a teacher and you can see the appeal of what I've described, then get out there - and prove that heads can dance

Jill Berry is head of Dame Alice Harpur School in Bedford

Head hunting

The headteacher shortage is expected to peak in 2009, with 3,500 heads retiring that year

Three-quarters of secondary heads are aged 50 plus

19 per cent of secondaries and 35 per cent of primaries that advertised for a head last year failed to appoint

For more information on becoming a headteacher visit the National College for School Leadership website at www.ncsl.org.uk

Reference

National College for School Leadership survey, 2006 and Education Data Surveys Ltd research, 2007.

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