Britain's youngest head on the secret of her success

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The Independent Online

Kelly Gauld may be the youngest head teacher in Britain. She became the head of Hillside Primary School in Lower Earley, near Reading, in February 2009, at just 29. In fact, she was already running the school at the age of 28 – she was appointed acting head in September 2008. She was certainly the youngest head at the November 2009 New Heads Conference.

The average head is quite a lot older, especially among female heads, according to the 2009 report on the state of the labour market for senior school staff prepared for the National Association of Head Teachers and the Association of School and College Leaders by Professor John Howson. Of 511 heads whose ages on appointment Professor Howson knew, only 9 per cent, or 48 appointments, went to people under 35.

She is part of an increasing trend for young women teachers to have higher aspirations than previously. More than a third (36 per cent) of whom now want to become heads, a 16 per cent increase on last year, according to the National College for School Leadership.

Kelly Gauld took a teaching degree at Kingston University, starting by studying English and drama and changing to history and geography. She changed because she felt English and drama were too easy for her: "I like to challenge myself." Britain's youngest head – as we will call her until a challenger appears – does not suffer from false modesty or lack of energy.

In her first primary school, in Slough, she quickly became head of Year 5 and Year 6, as well as maths co-ordinator. From there she was appointed to develop maths teaching using interactive whiteboards in 18 local schools before going to Hillside as deputy head in 2006.

Two years later, she found herself in charge of this larger-than-average school, with 456 pupils and a nursery. One in 10 children in the school has learning difficulties, and one in 10 qualifies for free school meals due to low household income. Just under a third are from minority ethnic backgrounds, and for 79 of her pupils, English is still a new and strange language. It's a very mixed intake, including children from deprived areas. There are no special selection criteria at all; the first priority goes to children who live in the catchment area, and then to those with brothers or sisters at the school. It had been in trouble, and identified by Ofsted as needing significant improvement, but was already on the road to recovery. The latest Ofsted report, in January 2010, says it is satisfactory and improving, adding "the school has appointed a dynamic senior leadership team that is very effectively driving school improvement".

She inherited a school that was oversubscribed, with a waiting list, but arrived with a list of things she wanted to change. Top of her list was to improve outdoor learning. "We have an amphitheatre and a pond area and I was saying, why are we not using these places? I have a working party of parents and governors who are clearing it all. The plan is for children to use it for play and for enriching the curriculum." The outdoor area will reflect the curriculum, which is topic-based – Africa in Year 4, South America in Year 5. That is why Year 5 were dressed in South American tunics, which they made themselves on the day that the photographer called.

Some of the parents say she's a dynamo and ask where she gets her energy from. She says a head teacher ought to be like that: "You get knocked over and you get up again." Just four months after her appointment, in June 2009, Kelly gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Polly. Five weeks later, on 21 July, Kelly was back at work.

Was that hard? No, actually. "I was ready to go back," she says. "I was at home, sterilising bottles, and I thought, I'm sure I was in charge of something before this." She's not, she says, one of those people who are fulfilled by having children. She always knew she would want to go back to work quickly.

She sings a lot, especially in assemblies. "I love singing. I'm working with the music co-ordinator to get a musical culture in the school." When she's not in school or looking after Polly, she's riding horses – she owns two, and they require a lot of attention. She rides competitively, and was competing in dressage events 11 days after her daughter was born.

Gauld is half-Irish and half-Polish, brought up in the Roman Catholic Church by her single mother on a council estate in Hillingdon. "Education was very important to my mum. My brother and I went to school and learnt to read and write. Ours were the only divorced parents in our school." She is still a churchgoer, but these days it's the Church of England – a compromise between her Catholicism and her husband's Scottish Presbyterianism.

She wants her staff to be as concerned about education as her mother was. "One of the most important things for a teacher is to be passionate about education. But you must also have a passion outside school. Then you will be able to put that passion into your teaching. You need to be able to enjoy it." She also wants risk-takers. "You must be willing to try something in the classroom and see what happens."

So, in 2010 she is issuing five risk cards to her teachers, and they must use them all. The cards will specify the risk to be taken – for example, to let the children plan a lesson, or to avoid using the interactive whiteboard for a week, or to spend a whole day outside. "We are a can-do school. We always say, we can do it, whatever it is." She bubbles with enthusiasm. For me, as an outsider, it's infectious and exciting. I'm not sure, though, if I were one of her staff, that I might not find it a bit tiresome.

Hillside Primary School was built in 1986, opening its doors for the first time in September 1986, and half of it is due to be rebuilt. The head is taking a close interest in every aspect of construction. I don't envy the builders.

A collection of Francis Beckett's head teacher profiles for 'The Independent', 'How to Create a Successful School', is published by Biteback Publishing