Kate Rickeard was aware of what her staff were thinking when she took on her first headship. "I was this 28-year-old upstart who thinks she knows it all," she recalls. "She's got her first headteacher job, the school is in special measures. And she's pregnant."
Mrs Rickeard didn't have a particular career plan. She was not someone who decided she would rise through the ranks to headship as soon as she set foot in a school. "I always thought that when I had children I would take a break from work, or work part-time; then after my children were at school I would go on to perhaps be a deputy," she says. But it was a "series of circumstances" which led to her taking the helm for the first time at 28.
After promotion to deputy head, she returned early from maternity leave to become acting head when her school leader left. When a permanent job came up at a nearby school that had gone into special measures, she applied and was appointed.
By becoming a head before she was 30, Mrs Rickeard is very much in the minority. A 2006 report, by management consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers, found it took an average of 18 years to become a headteacher, meaning even those who join the profession on leaving university will be unlikely to take up their first headship much before turning 40.
Figures from the annual census of school staff show just 2 per cent of heads are in the 30 to 34 age bracket, with the number under 30 too small to register. Little wonder, then, that young school leaders find themselves coming under scrutiny, from parents and from teachers.
Managing older staff
Mrs Rickeard has been at Birtley East Community Primary in Gateshead since February 2006, but she admits her arrival was a nerve-racking experience. One of the most daunting prospects was the idea of managing staff who were much older - and more experienced - than her. "I felt isolated at the beginning," she says.
Her predecessor had retired after 20 years at the school and many of the staff had worked with him for a long time.
"He was so established and so well liked, and people had a lot of pre-conceived ideas about me," she says. "All I could do was quietly get on with my job. I didn't do much within the local authority with other head meetings or anything. I just stayed in my school."
The potential difficulty of managing older staff was compounded by the fact that the school was in special measures and morale was low. "Then, to randomly be provided with this young upstart, who they probably presumed would be a know-it-all and who would come in and batter them around the head, was frightening for them," says Mrs Rickeard. "A lot of them were worried for their jobs."
It wasn't until the school came out of special measures the following year, with almost all of the original staff, that Mrs Rickeard felt she could relax. "I am ambitious and driven," she admits, "but I think people have the perception that because you're a head when you're young and you have three children, you must be a cow or a bully, because how else can you manage to do that?"
Tackling the preconceptions
These age-related preconceptions were something Liz Robinson expected when she took on the role of headteacher at Surrey Square Junior School in Southwark, south London, at the age of 29. "Everyone's got something to say about you - what you wear, how you look, what you say, any changes you bring in - you're always on show," she says. "You're putting yourself on a pedestal, but that's part of the territory."
Ms Robinson completed the National College's fast-track scheme, since replaced by the Future Leaders programme, to prepare her for headship. But she admits this did not endear her to colleagues. "The name suggested fastness, without being based on quality," she claims.
But it did give her an insight into how staff might react at having a young head. "At first, people do look at you with those preconceptions, but if anything, that made me more motivated and determined," she says. Her school achieved an "outstanding" grade in its most recent Ofsted report and she has been shortlisted for primary headteacher of the year in this year's Teaching Awards, which have helped dispel any doubts. "In all the leadership roles I have done, as soon as you start proving yourself, all that discussion (about age) is gone," she says.
Shortage of potential heads
The job of headteacher is a challenging one at any age. A combination of the workload and the responsibility is seen as the principal reason for a shortfall in the number of teachers wanting to step forward to become a school leader: last year saw a 12 per cent drop in graduates with the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) - a prerequisite for a new head - compared with 200708.
Many schools report difficulties in appointing heads, and a large proportion of vacancies remain unfilled - in 2009, the figures were 26 per cent in primaries, 19 per cent in secondaries and 27 per cent in special schools, according to Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education. More teachers are moving to deputy and assistant headship and staying put.
Ms Robinson admits that at times she finds it tough. During her first year, anonymous letters were sent to the local authority, complaining about various decisions she had made. She suspects that a parent and former member of staff were behind them.
"It is a bloody difficult job," she says. "Sometimes I have to shut the door, sit in my office and cry." Surrey Square is in one of the most deprived areas of the country and sometimes her pupils' personal circumstances are difficult to take. "It's when you feel helpless that you can't do as much as you would like to help them."
These pressures can be difficult for any school leader to handle, but James Blackwell thrives on the challenges of headship. Mr Blackwell wanted to be a headteacher since he first entered the profession, and at 28 he was appointed principal of Frizington Community Primary School in Cumbria. It may have been just 10 years since he left school himself, but his drive and enthusiasm helped move the school to "outstanding" in all categories in its Ofsted report.
"What has made me overcome that (pressure of the job) is my passion to lead education," he says. "I've always had a very clear vision for what education should be. In terms of the role and responsibility - the enormity is there, but as with any job, you don't realise it. The rewards far outweigh the negative aspects."
Schools can be rigidly hierarchical environments, and it can be difficult for young people to rise up the ranks ahead of older colleagues. Fast- track schemes, such as the Future Leaders programme, allow a teacher to become a head within four years, but often the crucial factor is whether a young teacher has a mentor within the school who will push them to take on responsibility.
Kate Rickeard's first headteacher persuaded her to do her NPQH after she had been teaching for only three years, which gave her the confidence to pursue it. "He took an enormous amount of pride in seeing people go on to be leaders, and he got me to see things from a leadership perspective very early on," she says.
Similarly, Liz Robinson and James Blackwell's first heads played a crucial role in inspiring them early on in their careers.
For these younger teachers, the NPQH was a real turning point. "It was very significant for me," says Mr Blackwell. "It really gave me an understanding of what it takes to run a school - vision and strategic planning." The programme also provides aspiring heads with a network of people in the same position, which is invaluable, especially if colleagues are resentful.
The benefit of experience
But not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea of young headteachers. Lesley Auger, former president of teaching union the NUT, told the union's annual conference last year that about half of primary schools in Salford, Greater Manchester, were experiencing problems as a result of having young heads who are not equipped to handle the pressure of the job. "They are Stepford heads," she says. "They are coming in with their NPQH and if they don't know what to do, they reach for a policy."
Young headteachers may be seen as one answer to the national shortage, but they will have to prove they have been selected on merit, rather than through desperation.
Judith Elderkin, another former NUT president, believes young headteachers do not always have the emotional intelligence or maturity to handle sensitive situations.
"People who aren't quite ready to apply for headship do, and get a job," she says. "They have not honed the personal and teaching skills that would prepare them for the rigours of headship." Ms Elderkin witnessed a bereaved teacher being put on capability proceedings by a new head: "That has made somebody, already ill and frail, severely ill."
Although he became a headteacher at 28, Mr Blackwell believes it is important for a new head to have as wide a range of experience as possible. He worked in Manchester schools throughout his four-year undergraduate course, and then in three very different areas and schools before becoming a head.
"Having that breadth of experience in different schools really gave me a grounding in teaching and learning," he says. "Without that, I wouldn't advise people to go on to being a head." Now on his second headship, at Richmond Hill Primary School in Aspatria, Cumbria, Mr Blackwell recognises the value of having staff of different ages in school. "I'm trying to look at how to bring balance of experience back into the school," he says.
Experience is critical for headteachers says Joe Ellison, head of the Aspiring Heads Network in the Teach First programme, "but different people gather that experience at different rates".
Teach First, which aims to place high-flying graduates into the classroom after a few months' intense training, set up the network to provide support for their graduates who want to go on to headship.
The network is not a fast-track scheme and does not actively promote young headteachers, even though many of those involved will be in their 20s. "It is about supporting the skills, knowledge, self-confidence and emotional resilience that you need," says Mr Ellsion. "It is possible to get that within eight to ten years, but they should only be going into those roles if they have had that experience. The question is, how long does it take to get it?"
While headteachers under 30 are scarce, young secondary heads are virtually unknown - 2 per cent of nursery and primary heads are aged 30 to 34, but only 1 per cent of secondary heads fall into this bracket and only 5 per cent are under 40. But age is irrelevant when it comes to how good a headteacher you are, says Rebecca Clark, who became head of Oasis Academy in Bristol a few months after turning 31.
She is in charge of 100 staff and more than 1,000 pupils, but says it is the first headship, regardless of age, that is the most daunting challenge.
"The difficulties come when you encounter issues or problems for the first time," she says. "How you deal with that and solve those issues is what defines your leadership and whether you will make a good head. But that is the same for anybody who becomes a head for the first time."
Young headteachers risk being labelled as over-eager career teachers, or being isolated by colleagues, but this can be overridden by the desire to have an impact, according to Mrs Rickeard. "People had a lot of opinions about me, but I'm not really that interested in what people think," she says. "I just want to do the best for the children. I really believe children only get one chance in education and if you get it wrong, that affects the rest of their life."
It can take an enormous amount of resilience to shoulder responsibility for a whole school and try to manage a large team. This may come with age and experience, but those skills can be built up quickly, says Ms Robinson. She consciously changed aspects of her professional persona to ensure she is not unduly affected by the trials and tribulations of the job.
"You have got to toughen up," she says. "I'm naturally a very open and soft person. I wear my heart on my sleeve and I'm incredibly passionate about what I do in the school. But I have had to find ways of being hard but maintaining who I am on the inside and still being compassionate. It is about being strong in a different way."
For many young heads, such as Mrs Rickeard, they have simply taken advantage of an opportunity that arose. But it is just as much about personality, and the type of person who has the self-assurance to jump at the chance to make their ideas a reality.
David Shaw, 28, believes he has a different way of thinking about headship compared with some of the headteachers he has worked with: one that is based on self-awareness and working in a team. "Sometimes when something is going wrong in a school, it is because people are on their own," he says.
As vice-principal at Grace Academy Darlaston in the West Midlands, Mr Shaw is one stage away from headship on the Future Leaders programme and talks about "relationships" and "communication" as the bedrocks of his job. "For 21st-century heads, it is about knowing your team," he says. "You can't lead a big institution by doing everything yourself." Being a good head is about self-belief and self-awareness, he believes. "It is only when you are able to be open with yourself about your own shortcomings that you can be open and honest with other people."
It does take a certain kind of person to be a headteacher under the age of 30. It might be the kind of person who does not shy away from the limelight. There will always be some who resent the young upstart and believe that good leadership can only be achieved through lengthy experience, but with about 45 per cent of headteachers more than 50 years old and expected to retire over the next few years, the profession might find itself relying on young teachers' ambitions more and more.