What's it like up there?

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Why do people become headteachers? For some it's to fulfil a lifelong ambition; others want the excitement of a new challenge. And for many it's just the natural next step. Stephanie Northen asked five heads who are just starting their second year in post why they made the move and how the job has measured up to their expectations

Karen Crutchfield, 36, is head of Berrynarbor school, in Ilfracombe, Devon.

The school is a mixed primary of 80 four to 11-year-olds with 11.5 staff "Until I came here no school had totally satisfied me, because I hadn't been in charge," says Karen Crutchfield. "Being a deputy was the hardest job I've ever done. There were bits of me in everything, but it wasn't my school. I wasn't the innovator."

Now she is. And, as head of Berrynarbor primary, she has found her niche.

It wasn't a comfortable one at first. The small school had serious weaknesses when Mrs Crutchfield started last year. That she was equal to the challenge was proved by a very positive all-clear from Ofsted in March.

"The first thing I did was move all the staff round. I am a risk-taker, a safe risk-taker. I could see the people who were not teaching to their strengths, and moving them round to give them work appropriate to their skills made a huge difference. It was a really big and important thing to do. Often in schools that have serious weaknesses, or worse, people will go off into separate corners just to survive. I've turned that around and people now feel secure and confident."

She involved her staff in all the changes. "I've always been honest and straightforward with people. I've never been one to hold myself up in any high esteem, so I'll show I'm learning and developing as well. I've shared everything that has gone on here."

The staff are the priority, she says. Get them right and the children will prosper. She organised training for teachers who had not had any for years.

She eased their workload by bringing on the support staff, two of whom are now training to become teachers.

Mrs Crutchfield teaches for 60 per cent of the week, work which she values.

"My staff know I'm no flash-in-the-pan teacher, but someone with 14 years'

classroom experience. But I keep the two jobs separate. You have to have a balance, and I definitely won't teach some days."

Her determination to empower others comes partly from her four years as a deputy to a head who was keen to help her develop. Less valuable has been the national professional qualification for headship (NPQH) which she has nearly finished. "I enjoyed meeting other people who wanted to be heads, and I enjoyed the role play, but some of it has been a waste of time and paper."

Mrs Crutchfield dislikes wasting time, partly because she has a three-year-old child. "I told the governors I would not work beyond 7.30pm.

If I have to, I'll have the morning off. I'm strict about that. Even if I didn't have a young child, even if I were a single person living on my own in a hovel, I would still want to get home."

Judith Pryce, 47, is head of Newtown high school, Powys. The comprehensive for 11 to 18-year-olds has 1,000 pupils and 97 staff The past nine months have been the most exciting and rewarding in Judith Pryce's professional life. They have also been the most challenging.

Mrs Pryce became head of Newtown high in January. Like Karen Crutchfield, she took charge of a school that had serious weaknesses. Nine months earlier the comprehensive had been "hauled over the coals" by Ofsted. "A lot of people were hurt," she says. "Particularly the pupils, because behaviour was an issue and the press got very interested. Many negative and over-generalised comments were made which were unfair to the majority of the children."

The local authority drafted in an associate head who set up a new management team, three of whom had not held such senior positions before.

Then Mrs Pryce arrived, bringing with her 24 years' experience in Powys schools, six as a deputy.

The team gelled. "Because we were new we could dictate our own direction, set our own values and decide, with the governors, what our purpose, aims and ethos were."

They came up with "cyfle", which is Welsh for "opportunity" and also an acronym: caring yields a flourishing learning environment. Caring is the key. "You walk around the school now and realise that it is cared for, it is loved, in every sense: the fabric of the building and the people within it," says Mrs Pryce. "This is what we mean by caring: caring about everything we do and caring for everybody. If you care about everything then inevitably you will have the ethos and spirit that is here now."

Newtown has been transformed. The serious weaknesses label was gone by May.

The litter and graffiti have disappeared too. It is clean and quiet.

Teachers now work with their doors open.

"It has been so fantastic, I cannot put it into words. To effect that change in just over 12 months says to me that once the children know what your expectations are - and of course you need high expectations - then they respond. It's leadership; everyone was waiting for leadership and to share in the school identity."

A good leader, she says, must care about people. "Obviously you need to know all the rules and regulations, but basically if you are interested in people and you help and support them, and enable them to do their job, then most people are willing to be led."

Of her own leadership she says: "The governors have used the word charismatic, but you'd need to speak to them. I just feel I'm doing the job." This no-nonsense approach is reflected in her priorities for the coming year: to improve behaviour and attendance, and to raise standards.

Tim Carroll, 43, is head of Vandyke upper school in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, a comprehensive with 1,100 13 to 18-year-olds and 100-plus staff "That first day still leaps up and punches you on the nose, no matter how well prepared you think you are," says Tim Carroll, who joined Vandyke in 2003. "You very quickly realise that you're where the buck stops. If there is going to be the sort of continuous improvement that we need, the head has to drive it. It is a huge responsibility."

Mr Carroll set his sights on the top job after five years as second in command of a new school in Milton Keynes. He was one of the first deputies to acquire the NPQH, long before it became mandatory earlier this year. And he served a year as an associate head.

All of these experiences were important, he says. "The NPQH was good professional development and an excellent networking opportunity, and I was fortunate to take on a good school and to succeed a long-serving and respected head who was determined to make the transition smooth."

Mr Carroll also inherited an excellent leadership group and governors eager to support and challenge. But there were still frustrations. He spent an "awful lot of time" trying to recruit good staff. "There is nothing more important than the quality of staff you put in front of students, but it has been extremely difficult." And a tight budget has meant shelving some modest improvements.

Nevertheless, the year has been "hard work, but truly wonderful". The icing on the cake would be improved GCSE and Year 9 Sats results this summer.

"School improvement is not a 100-metre sprint," he says, "but most new headteachers recognise that you want some early gains so that people can actually see things are different and that together we can bring about change."

The sort of change he was looking for was encapsulated in a study skills seminar for Year 11 students. No one wanted to confess their aspirations until, reluctantly, one girl spoke up. She said quietly that she aimed to read medicine at Harvard. "I was just beaming," says Mr Carroll. "For me that summed up the best of life in a comprehensive school: someone who is aiming high and who we can help fulfil those aspirations."

Implementing the school improvement plan will continue to be the main focus of his work in the coming year, but he does have one other ambition: "to continue to enjoy the job as much as I did last year".

Graham Ridley, 56, is head of Selly Oak special school in Birmingham. The mixed school has 370 11 to 19-year-old pupils and 100 staff Graham Ridley took the long route to the top, having served on and off for 12 years as acting head at Selly Oak.

"There is a feeling that you should not have experience of the school you are in and you should be young, but I'd say that it works very well to have experienced people," he says. "When I did my NPQH assessment they commented on how innovative I was. If you can keep up the momentum as you get more experience you have more ideas to blend."

Despite his periods in the hot seat when "superhead" Sir Bob Dowling was off rescuing schools, Mr Ridley says being in charge in your own right is very different. "You are able to put your own flavour on things and at a local authority level you are able to negotiate for the school much more effectively. Before, it was always time limited, and I knew that if the wheels came off they would call Bob back."

Selly Oak is a celebrated special school. "It has all the badges and whistles," says Mr Ridley. "It is a tremendous privilege to take over a successful school, but I have been part of its building as well.

"There is a great belief that it is better to get fresh blood in as head, but the excellence that we developed is partly because we are a stable team and we build up systems which last for years rather than just changing every few minutes. Building a successful school is more like gardening than engineering: you have to get the groundwork right for things to flourish."

He finds special needs children inspirational, because they tend to mature earlier through having to cope with adversity. "If you have a good community with lots of children who have experienced difficulty and are supported, then something special happens."

He praises their personal skills and degree of empathy. "We have an artist working with us at the moment doing a mural. The number of children who actually thanked her for her work and didn't just treat her as a commodity was quite overwhelming."

Being head of Selly Oak school "is a bit like being a chef and being given the Savoy to run. It is a fabulous job." And over the coming year Mr Ridley will be looking to share his recipes with others. "I want to bring to a wider audience the advantages of a special school as a genuinely life-enhancing choice for students."

Philip Evans, 49, is head of Queen Margaret school in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. A primary and early years centre for two to 11-year-olds, it has 210 pupils and 25 staff The children had one question for Philip Evans when he went for his interview at Queen Margaret. Would he keep their blue slips? The slips, given out for good work, were treasured by the pupils. "They really do appreciate what you do for them. They have been an ongoing pleasure," says Mr Evans.

The slips were also an indication of a system that was working well, he says. It was typical of the school he joined last year.

Mr Evans followed in the footsteps of a successful head whose efforts had won a glowing inspection report in 2002. "You don't want to make changes when they are not necessary, but there is no school that doesn't need to continually develop and move forward. Inevitably there is a sort of hiatus, picking up from your predecessor and carrying things forward and then putting your own stamp on it."

Mr Evans had plenty of experience to draw on as a deputy for six years and an acting head for four terms. He had done his NPQH, finding it useful and realistic. And, of course, he was given lots of tips.

Some heads said: "Take your time, don't rush in, make sure that what you do is right." But others told him that it is easier to change things when you are new. Putting off dealing with an issue risks it becoming part of you "and you grow to live with it".

His new staff have been open and supportive, which he appreciates. "It would be easy to come in as the new boy and alienate them. It is a strange sort of role in that I am their line manager but I am relying on them. You need them to carry on as normal until you have a firm understanding of how things function. While there is a lot of common ground between schools, each one is also unique."

Mr Evans has tried to keep his workload manageable, but some areas, such as government initiatives and staff sickness, are not under his control.

"Sometimes managing things means doing it yourself. There are times when the workload gets very heavy."

All in all, though, Mr Evans feels comfortable at his new school. "I've got the school whose character suits me. I have been very lucky."

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