Walk a mile or two in the head's shoes

16th July 2004 at 01:00
Are heads desk potatoes or does the job keep them fit? Three of them clocked how far they walk during the school day and talked to Martin Whittaker about their fitness regimes

Staff at Guardian Angels primary school certainly earn their morning break.

The staffroom is on the top floor of this five-storey building in Mile End, east London. "By the time you get to the door, your legs are like jelly," says headteacher Liz Worrell-Jude.

It is not as though she needs the exercise. The 48-year-old head is a keen marathon runner who pounds the streets up to four times a week to keep fit.

But when The TES decided to find out how far she walks during the school day, even she was surprised at the distance she covers. She wore a pedometer for a day and it measured that she walked over 3.5km or nearly two-and-a-quarter miles.

Ms Worrell-Jude puts it down to the layout of the school. Guardian Angels primary is in a Victorian listed building, originally designed to separate girls and boys. The building is long and narrow with lots of stairs.

"I start very early, and so it's generally up and down the stairs to leave notices and briefing notes in the secretary's office," she says.

"On Tuesday we called an emergency meeting and I have been doing a lot of playground duty, so there's been a lot of movement around the school.

"My office is right in the middle of the school, my secretary is on the bottom floor, and we run between each other. And if we need to get to the classrooms, the older children are on the top floor, and reception are on the ground."

Despite the miles she gets under her belt simply doing her job, Liz Worrell-Jude still swears by her exercise regime. In April she raised more than pound;1,000 for the school by completing the 26-mile London Marathon, in spite of a knee injury on the 16th mile. How does she find time for running, given her hectic schedule?

"It has to be very early mornings or very late evenings. You just have to be determined.

"But I find that I do a lot of my problem-solving on the road. And it's when you're trudging the miles that you get a very clear mind, and a perspective on some of the more difficult issues."

Diana Mackey, head of Imperial Avenue infants school in Leicester, managed to beat Ms Worrell-Jude's school premises distance record. She wore the device on a typical Tuesday, and it measured that by the end of the day she had walked just over 4.5km, or nearly three miles. Beforehand, she guessed the distance at around third of that.

Imperial Avenue is a nursery-infant school with a separate assessment centre for children with complex special educational needs. The two sites are only streets apart, though Mrs Mackey confesses that she drives for convenience.

Nevertheless, she says the layout of the 1930s-built school involves a lot of walking. "I was surprised it was as high as it was," she says. "But in early years I think you have to be quite active and move around the children.

"On the day I wore the pedometer, I had a couple of hours when I was working in my office. But at other times I was going to the other site, visiting the other end of the school, talking to colleagues, meeting parents - and all that involves me moving around the school. I quite often go to the office and that's at the other end of the school."

Mrs Mackey will not be precise about her age - she says she is over 45.

When she is not in school, she likes to unwind by cycling alone in the Leicestershire countryside, covering up to 30 miles a trip three times a week.

"There's nothing noble about it at all," she says. "For me it's fun. When you step into school every morning, you belong to everybody - the staff, the children, the parents. I love school, I love the busy, exciting atmosphere, I love being involved, being part of the school community. But I find real solace in going off into the countryside on my bike and being on my own."

When the evenings draw in, Mrs Mackey turns to swimming, churning up and down her local pool for half a mile two or three times a week. Whether she is cycling or swimming, she says exercise has become an essential part of her weekly routine.

"It both relaxes me and energises me," she says. "With each headship I have gone for, I went and swam before the interviews. It just gets rid of those nerves and puts things into perspective. But I probably went into the interviews smelling of chlorine."

Our third fitness challenge guinea pig was Mark Trott, 49-year-old head of Ocklynge junior school. During one day around this large 840-pupil school in Eastbourne, he managed to notch up a distance of just over 3km.

He had just returned from a residential trip and was catching up on paper work, so this was not a typical day.

"The school site is very large, so I'm up and around quite a lot. But I'm not one to be stuck in the office for long. I prefer to be out and about.

"On an average day you go out before school in the playground and show your face, you wander around the corridors, pop into a class, there are people you need to see here and there."

Outside school he keeps fit through a variety of sports including football, cycling, swimming, running and going rock climbing with his children. He also plays in the staff stoolball team. For those who have never heard of it, stoolball is a 500-year-old forerunner of cricket which is still played in Sussex. It involves defending a head-high wicket board against an underarm bowler.

Mr Trott says he thrives on regular exercise. "I can't stand being stuck in all day and all evening as well. I have to have physical activity. It's good for your mental health really, it just helps you unwind and forget about everything else for a while, as well as keeping you fit and active.

Then you're in a better state to tackle the next day.

"Other people have other interests, don't they? But I need to be doing something two or three times a week, otherwise I think the stress of the job would get to me."

How on earth does he fit it all in? "You find time for the things you think are important. That's why it helps me having a routine. It makes me do it, because either someone else is relying on me being there, or it's Tuesday night - right, that means I go to football.

"Some evenings I get in from work and I don't feel like going out to run or cycle. But actually, when you're doing it and when you come back, you feel that much better for having done it.

"If I go into a shop at the weekend, I make sure I go up the stairs rather than using the escalator. And I'll jog down to my local shop to get the paper rather than driving."

Chris Grimshaw is head of Latimer community arts college in Kettering, Northamptonshire, and helps deliver the National College for School Leadership's New Visions Programme for Early Headship. He says the pedometer results from the three heads confirm the traditional view of what a head does - being out and about with staff and students, rather than stuck in an office.

He is also something of a keep-fit fanatic himself and can be found at his local gym at 6.30am two or three times a week. He says fitness is one of the strategies he teaches to new heads "It allows heads to recharge those batteries and makes the job sustainable, because it is so complex and demanding."

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