Talking Heads: Kate Myers talks to Liz de Keller
Liz De Keller, 50, has for nearly five years been head of the 13-staff North Islington Nursery School. It received an excellent OFSTED report last year and featured in the chief inspector's recent annual report
Did you always want to be a head?
No. When I started teaching I didn't want to be one. I trained as a mature student in my thirties when my two children started school. Their very good primary school enthused me. I worked in a variety of primary schools and did a one-day-a-week course on bilingual children at ILEA's Centre for Urban Education. I became an advisory teacher for bilingual support for under-fives and became fascinated by the nursery phase. My next job was teacher in charge of a double unit in Haringey, and then as an early years co-ordinator in this area. I applied for the deputy post here knowing that the head would retire in a couple of years, and got the headship when that happened.
How would you describe your style?
In a little school it has to be co-operative and based on consensus, although I have a strong vision of how the school should be and how it can best meet the needs of the children. I have negotiables and non-negotiables. Having respect for the children and their parents and believing that all our children are capable of wonderful things is not negotiable. The way we achieve it is.
What do you gain from your governors?
Our governing body has no statutory powers. It functions as a sounding board and in an advisory capacity. Many of our governors have good analytical skills, and come to problems with a different perspective. They are very supportive. They were wonderful during OFSTED and all wanted to speak to the inspectors.
What do you gain from your LEA?
I am very pro-LEA, but it is very difficult for small LEAs to provide the necessary support for the nursery sector, such as an early years inspector and advisory support. I do have a good link inspector who provides advice and support mainly on management issues.
What are the most important aspects of a head's job?
Inspiring and encouraging people to want to do their best. Acknowledging the important role that parents play and creating a welcoming ethos. It is also important that the head keeps up with current developments. In the early years field there are always exciting and interesting developments.
What do you enjoy most?
Three and four-year-olds are extremely interesting to work with. I also enjoy working in a diverse community.
What don't you enjoy?
I'm a teacher rather than a head, so I find administration difficult. I've discovered that if you leave it for a long time a lot of it becomes out of date.
What is most difficult?
In my first term of headship I had to make four staff redundant. If I had known that was going to happen I would not have applied for the job. For a long time after, understandably, staff were mistrustful of management, and I had to work hard to change that. Also, having to confront staff when things are not going according to plan. I want to be encouraging, praising and accentuating the positive, but sometimes there comes a time when you have to point out that someone's practice is not in line with our policies.It's difficult to balance my high expectations that everything will be perfect at all times, with the reality of school life. Also, it's easy to sit in an office and criticise. But what I've learnt is that it's better to say what is on your mind. It does clear the air, and mostly things get better.
Who most influenced you?
Chris Athey, now retired from lecturing at Froebel. I heard her talk after I'd been teaching for three years. She said we should look at what children can do rather than what they can't. That approach changed my whole view of education. Stella Cavanagh, head of the Haringey school I worked in, showed me how important it was for heads to be good teachers and be credible to the staff. Vivian Gussin Paley is an inspirational American academic who puts children at the centre of the education process.
What keeps you sane?
My network of friends and colleagues who are also heads, and the children.We have a wonderful garden here, and when it all becomes too much I just go and play with the children. Getting a three-year-old' s perspective on life just makes everything else pale into insignificance.
Who are your heroes?
Nelson Mandela, for being a person who truly believes in the human spirit and has the ability to overcome all sorts of difficulties.
If you were Secretary of State for Education . . .
I'd scrap vouchers. We need to look to European countries and agree a definition of early years education and then ensure there is an entitlement of this provision for all children until they turn five. I would ensure that all primary schools stuck to the legal admission age, which is the term after the children turn five.
How would you like to be remembered?
First, for making a difference in some children's lives and helping the children see themselves as competent learners who can get on in the world and tackle whatever comes up for them. Second, enabling parents to see that their experience is vital, they can be partners in the process, and they don't have to sit by and have it all done to them.