On top and down under

Judy Larsen (43) opened Ballajura Community College in Western Australia for 2,000 11 to 17-year-olds in 1995.

She is studying for a PhD at the Institute of Education, University of London, on a scholarship jointly funded by the Australian government, the Nuffield Foundation and the institute.Did you always want to be a head?

I never set out to be a principal. I started teaching after I graduated and taught in small rural and large metropolitan primary schools. After 14 years' teaching I was appointed as a school consultant (adviser) to work with 30 schools on development planning.

That is when I started to think about the process of change and its complexity. Then I became a field researcher for "First Steps" in Western Australia (an international project supporting literacy in primary schools) after which I was appointed manager for implementing a new English language syllabus.

Western Australia has 1,000 schools in an area the size of Europe. Some days I would spend five hours on a plane and then five hours driving to a school. Then I was asked to develop "Stepping Out", the secondary counterpart of First Steps. I'd no previous experience of the secondary sector but that was an advantage because I came to it with a fresh eye.

I'd been doing that job for three years when I woke up one morning and realised I needed a change. I knew I wanted to get back into a school and that day saw an advert for the position of vice-principal of Distance Education. This "school" had 3,000 students from nursery age through to 17-year-olds and included children who lived on remote sheep farms, young people in prison, travellers and pregnant teenagers. We had 180 staff and taught using a variety of media. It was a complex operation and I loved the job.

While I was there I applied for a scholarship but before I heard the result I was appointed principal of Ballajura, which was to be a purpose-built, state-of-the art secondary school, 15km from Perth.

How would you describe your style of headship?

There are times when I need to be compassionate, gentle and thoughtful, and others when I need to be strategic, innovative and astute. I move in and out of roles according to what is needed.

I place a strong emphasis on personal relationships. It's important to harness the energies of disparate groups of teachers, students and their parents. Our school had no history so we had to create one. It has not been romantic, but plain hard work.

Nothing is accidental. I provide the energy and impetus required. My responsibility is to lead within the organisation and help staff be leaders.

Where do you get your support from?

I get some from my school district. We are learning together - they are going through a metamorphosis as well. I also get enormous support from a network of colleagues, some of whom I met through my previous jobs. My identical twin sister has just taken up a headship of a new primary school and we spend a lot of time exploring ideas together and supporting each other.

What are the most important aspects of a head's job?

A firm focus on students is important, so every decision I make has them in mind. And it is important to value people - you don't create a school on your own.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I love teenagers - their excitement in life. They are fresh and honest with their feedback. They are at a stage in their lives when they are learning about themselves. I have two teenage children of my own. I also relish the rare opportunity to do something innovative and make a difference.

What have you found difficult?

Telling a mother her husband has been sexually abusing her daughter and dealing with two young female teachers who were both told in the same week that they had been diagnosed as suffering from breast cancer. Schools are becoming increasingly responsible for a burgeoning social welfare agenda.

Who or what has most influenced your approach?

My grandmother and father were both principals, so education has always been a big part of my life.

What was different from what you expected?

It's more difficult than I expected. I often reflect and think I could have done something much better. In the end you can only learn by doing something.

What would you do differently?

Be more politically proactive, particularly in not allowing the school to grow as fast as it has. And I sometimes wonder whether it is practical to have an open-door policy in a school this size.

What keeps you sane?

Laughter. And I live in the most beautiful place, in a national park. I drive home with blue skies to this exquisite forest and my family. We have kangaroos, parrots and a waterfall in our garden.

Who are your heroes?

People who have the courage of their convictions.

If you were Minister for Education?

I would work with other ministries such as the environment, health and women to get our act together. We need an explicit emphasis on literacy and to open up the debate about the changing expectations on schools. They

cannot do everything.

How would you like to be remembered?

As a fantastic parent.

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