A very skilful, scary servant

Letting others get on with what they do best has won one head a top award, writes Gerald Haigh.

Andrew Parsons, headteacher of the 1,600-pupil Plymstock school in Plymouth, is clearly a much-loved man. Colleagues use phrases such as "warm and funny", "a human touch", "values what everybody does" - qualities the visitor sees in his cheerful corridor encounters with colleagues and pupils.

But then you meet head of English Tracy Goldie who, after paying her own tribute to his ability to motivate and develop people ("I wouldn't be a head of department if I hadn't come here"), scotches any notion that good leadership is just a matter of being a teddy bear. "He can be quite scary," she says of the man who has just been named education public servant of the year in the 2002 Public Finance Magazine awards.

"He expects managers to have a sense of purpose and presence," says Stephen Oliver, one of the school's two deputy heads, "and never to walk past bad practice." (Which suggests the occasional scary moment for someone.) And Mr Parsons says of himself: "In many ways, I'm a traditional head, getting around the school, challenging inappropriate behaviour."

This is part of his belief that leadership is not the same as management. Plymstock's director of resources, Alan Ford, is just one colleague who explains that Mr Parsons leaves managers to manage. "He delegates and gives you the independence to go ahead."

Mr Parsons's early jobs were in "difficult" schools - first, in the Sixties, as an RE teacher in a Yorkshire mining community, then in secondary modern schools in Kent, culminating in his first headship at Senacre school in Maidstone. Then, for three years, he was Kent's senior secondary inspector, before returning to headship in 1991 at Plymstock.

Working with disadvantaged children made him certain of his commitment to the success of all pupils. And his time as an inspector brought awareness of the importance of what he calls simply "looking" - the ability to observe what's going on in a classroom and to see the strengths, qualities and development needs of the teacher. Consequently, from the start at Plymstock, he had teachers at all levels observing and learning from each other. "There are so many kinds of teaching that are transferable to other areas of the school," he says.

Mr Parsons was recommended for his award by his colleagues, who emphasise how his leadership has brought about steady academic progress - from 45 per cent gaining at least five GCSE passes at A* to C, to 75 per cent in 10 years. Alongside this, they commend his continuing efforts to improve the working environment.

Alan Ford recalls: "The heating system in my room used to be an Aga stove. The first job in the morning was to light it. He's transformed all that because he's a wizard at finding the funds."

Now, although some classes still take place in huts, there are many high-quality enhancements - computer rooms, a library in what was a small hall, new changing rooms being built for the sports hall. And although good teachers can achieve success anywhere, it's surely true that improving working conditions can only encourage staff and pupils, as well as help to attract parents.

Mr Parsons retires at the end of this term, because "I need to admit, in part to myself, that I can no longer run at the pace I have set myself". Not that any of his colleagues would notice. "With six weeks left, he's still planning the future, looking at staffing for next term. There's no sign that he's demob-happy," says the school's other deputy head, Sean Cormac.

The Public Finance Awards, supported by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, the Office of Government Finance and the Cabinet Office , are open to all working in the public sector. They are not just for leaders and managers - one of this year's awards went to a police constable working on a difficult estate. Next year's prospectus will be available in September from Heather Dunlop: heather.dunlop@cipfa.org, or fax 020 7543 5867.

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