Talking Heads

20th October 1995 at 01:00
Helen Metcalf Age 48 Years of headship 7 School Chiswick Community School 11 to 19 mixed comprehensive of more than 1,200 pupils in west London.

The first in a new series in which headteachers discuss their jobs - its highs and lows; influences and expectations Did you always want to be a head?

No. I drifted into teaching due to lack of good career advice. After getting a history degree I started teaching in FE. At the same time I became involved in local politics and the evening hours clashed, so I switched to schools. I started in a grammar and then moved on to comprehensives. I was a local councillor and for a long while was ambivalent whether or not to go into national politics.

When I was about 30, after six years as a local councillor, I switched my focus to teaching. A year after I gave up being a councillor I had a child, and two years later, in 1982, I applied for a deputy head's post. I was a deputy for five-and-a-half years and then applied for this headship. I think a solid grounding as a deputy is important so that when you become a head you can support the deputies in the way you want the job to be done.

How would you describe your style of headship?

Strong leadership. You take the money, so you do the job. I have clear ideas, but mediate them with other people's ideas and aspirations in order to move the school forward.

What is the most important part of a head's job?

To get enough of the key stake holders to do what you want them to do, to make things work. You have to understand the politics of the institution and how things work in order to move things along. You have to have a clear idea about what good education is so you can measure what is happening.

My perspective relates to the job I've had to do. In a different kind of school the answer might be different. You have to carry the staff with you or it won't work. You have to consult and be sensitive and you have to ensure the nature and quality of daily transactions is high - it matters what supply teachers do and how dinner ladies interact.

What do you enjoy about your job?

It's never boring as you deal with a huge variety of issues - a distressed child one moment and writing a policy the next. It's a privilege to see children developing with you. When you're a head, you can make things happen for staff or for children. I get a real buzz by creating the circumstances that help teachers create real quality teaching and learning.

What don't you enjoy?

You do get all the nasty jobs - suspending pupils, dealing with difficult staffing issues, telling people they didn't get the job. They're the worst bits, the rest is fine.

Who influenced your approach?

Margaret Maden (head of Islington Green) was a good role model. She was an outstanding and inspirational head. Practical education research has also influenced me. There was a time when we all became a bit despairing but people like Rutter (Fifteen Thousand Hours) showed us we could do it. When I became a head I looked through all that research again. It verifies what we know is true- that simple things like displays matter, that you have to get the component parts right.

The "headship and leadership in schools" course run by the Grubb Institute gave me the ability to reflect on how an institution functions. It was the most useful course I've ever been on - it gave me the methodology for analysing a particular problem, finding a solution and being aware that sometimes the stated problem is not the real one.

What was different from what you expected?

I hadn't fully appreciated the business of being perceived as an all-powerful figurehead. Wherever you are in the school, people are checking you out and your words have a significance - if you don't smile people wonder if there's a reason. People treat you differently even from when you're a deputy. You get the credit for everything that's right - for example, a good concert - when really the teachers involved should get the credit. And you get the blame for everything that goes wrong, like lost PE shorts.

What would you do differently?

Be a bit less conscientious. When I came to the school it had to be changed, it was "do or die" and extraordinarily hard work.

Who are your heroes?` Barbara Castle. She's a good fighter for what she believes and was one of the first powerful women politicians when I was young.

Future plans?

There are always new challenges in this job and it would have to be something really special to drag me away from it.

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