Women on top: The rise of the female head

Hiring a female head teacher is no longer unusual. And, in some areas, they are now in the majority. Liz Lightfoot hears why more schools are putting women in charge
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The Independent Online

Women are being appointed to headships in record numbers and taking over some of the toughest schools in the country.

They may sometimes be mistaken for their secretaries, but women are increasingly leading large, inner-city comprehensives that were traditionally run by men.

Figures from the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) show an 18 per cent increase in women heads in secondary schools and 5 per cent in primaries.

In some urban areas the majority of secondary schools are now led by women, for example, in Newham, Waltham Forest and Tower Hamlets in London and parts of inner-city Birmingham. The Future Leaders programme, which prepares senior teachers to run large, urban schools, says 70 per cent of its first intake were women.

In a series of articles in the past year, The Independent's Education & Careers supplement has profiled a number of outstanding women heads including Janice Howkins, head of Bentley Wood in Harrow, Sue Seifert, head of Montem Primary School in north London, and Jo Shuter, head of Quintin Kynaston school in Westminster. Moreover in Barrow-in-Furness we encountered another impressive female leader, Enid Fraser, head of Parkview School.

This year's figures from the Future Leaders programme are expected to show a further increase. Eight in 10 headship appointments in primary schools have gone to women over the past 12 months according to John Howson, the teacher recruitment expert. When it comes to the toughest schools, the most common reason women give for wanting to enrol for Future Leaders – a mixture of training and mentoring – is the desire to do something for society and help the most disadvantaged children, says Angi Bhole, the Future Leaders spokeswoman.

"Future Leaders says there must be no excuses for under-achievement and children in the most difficult circumstances need the most inspirational teachers, which is exactly the way I think," says Linett Kamala, 37, an assistant head at John Kelly Girls' Technology College in Brent, London. She joined the programme because she wanted to raise the aspirations and expectations of the most disadvantaged children. "It's given me the under-pinning, encouragement and support to believe I can apply for a headship," she says.

Women are still less likely than men to become heads but the gap is narrowing. In 2006, the latest year for which figures are available, women made up 57 per cent of secondary teachers and 36 per cent of heads compared with 54 per cent and 29 per cent respectively in 2000. In the primary sector women made up 87 per cent of teachers and 67 per cent of heads compared with 84 per cent and 60 per cent in 2000. Explanations for the increase vary from better working conditions and higher salaries making childcare more affordable, to a greater acceptance of women leaders in the profession, according to research for the NCSL's campaign. Dr Marianne Coleman, from the Institute of Education, says the clearer career progression provided by the National Professional Qualification for Headship and the increased use of mentors were cited as factors.

But she suspects that more women are leading schools in difficult circumstances because men don't want the jobs. "Women are more likely to be head teachers in challenging inner-city areas such as London or Birmingham where there are huge difficulties even getting a shortlist of suitable candidates," she says. "Some of the increase is because governors have to accept a woman due to the lack of suitable male candidates. Research in the United States has shown black women are most likely to end up with the most difficult schools."

In a society where men are still the main bread winners, men are less likely to apply for jobs at schools that are failing and threatened with closure, she says.

Bias against women in management has declined but still exists. Half the women teachers in Coleman's recent survey claimed to have experienced sexism or discrimination compared with two thirds she questioned in the 1990s. A recurrent complaint was that governors were reluctant to promote women.

One aspiring head was told at the age of 50 that her age was against her but the post later went to a man of 52. Another said the chairman of governors questioned whether she would be tough enough on discipline and warned she had a year to prove herself by sorting out behaviour, or be out.

A female head in her forties says she was asked at interview what her husband would say if she were appointed. And a woman who applied to a boys' school was told a governor hadn't voted for her because he thought it would be wrong to have a woman in charge of boys.

"Within the schools a lot of the message about equality has got across, not completely, but largely," says Coleman. "Governors come in from the world of finance and business with attitudes about management that are not really in keeping with those in schools today.

Linda Townsend, the deputy head teacher of Woodside High, a large inner-city comprehensive in Tottenham, north London, agrees that there are still a few governors who think men should run tough schools. "Even though they find a strong woman candidate they are still a bit nervous and don't appoint and re-advertise. It's not that they are anti-women. They don't feel comfortable with women leaders of big secondary schools."

The governors of Woodside, formerly White Hart Lane, however, appointed a woman to get the school out of difficulty three years ago. The new head, Joan McVittie, 56, who brought Townsend in with her as a deputy, got the school off Ofsted's danger list within a year and won praise from Tony Blair. Now the children, who speak 68 different languages, say they feel safe in the school.

Often women come to headship later, when their families are grown up. "I got my first headship eight years ago, the year my divorce came through," says McVittie. "Looking back it was the break-up of my marriage and the need to maintain a standard of living for my daughters that spurred me to deputy headship and then headship."

She was head hunted to take over White Hart Lane after having won her spurs as head of Leytonstone, a comprehensive in a deprived area of east London."It would have been easy to have stayed at Leytonstone," she says. "I had seven or eight years to retirement. But I came and looked around and there was a real sense of neglect around the school and the children. I thought I could make a difference."

The new head had many surprises, not all of them good. Unlocking the bottom drawer of her desk on her first day she was shocked to find five pellet or replica guns, 10 laser pens and 20 knives that had been confiscated from pupils."I put the knives in a padded envelope and they went straight through the bottom, they were so sharp," she says.

Female heads can be tough when they need to be but good discipline comes more from getting the systems right and people working together, according to Townsend. "When we first arrived I would wade into fights and split them up but now I don't have to. Pupils know we cannot be intimidated; they know the rules and the consequences of breaking them and things are very calm."

Even the best women teachers can lack confidence in their ability to run a school and the budget says Rachel Perkins, 37, head of Kingsbridge Primary in south Devon. She had not thought of headship until the female head of her previous school told her she could do it.

"When you are the deputy head you have some accountability but the buck doesn't stop with you," she says. "You can pass difficult decisions on to someone else. I love having that responsibility and seeing things in the school that I have done."

It was being able to handle an angry parent during an acting headship that persuaded Sue Savage, head of St John the Baptist in Leicester, to move up permanently. "I had been in teaching for 10 years when I was asked to fill in as the acting head at another school. I went in with trepidation, not knowing anyone and worried about handling the budget but I loved every minute of it. When a mother came in and shouted at me because something had gone wrong I was able to sit her down and resolve it. She said she was sorry about the way she had spoken and I felt elated that I had been able to make a difference."

Women no longer feel they have to conform to the masculine stereotype of the traditional head says Coleman. They are stronger and more confident than 10 years ago but not averse to using feminine wiles, if they think it is necessary. Several told her they were prepared to flutter their eye lashes to get their way.