In the teaching profession, the role of headteacher is a position to aspire to and represents ultimate success in the field. But for some headteachers in the region, a recent shift in leadership models has taken the role to new heights.
by Jennifer Chamberlain
Having spent her entire teaching career at Notre Dame Catholic College in Everton, in July 2015 executive headteacher Frances Harrison took on the challenge of heading up a second school, Savio Salesian College in Bootle. Now at the helm of both schools, Frances believes that setting high standards is the key to achieving widespread success.
Despite her achievements in education, Frances never wanted to be a teacher. Having studied science at university in the 1970s, she was keen to take advantage of the new chemical companies emerging in the Liverpool city region to embark on a career in the science industry. However, when looking for work after graduation, Frances was asked to assist at a local secondary school which didn’t have a science teacher.
“I didn’t want to help out because I didn’t want to work with children at all, and I certainly didn’t want to work in the area I lived in,” explains Frances. “But I did it, and it was an epiphany. It came by accident but it was the best thing that could’ve happened. There was something I felt I really had to offer. I loved teaching science and I’ve been teaching ever since!”
Having spent two years teaching part time, and without any teaching qualifications, Frances left the school to study for a post graduate certificate in education. It was during her return to university that she first came across Notre Dame Catholic College. “I’d already taught for two years so when I actually went on teaching practice I found it a bit of a doddle,” she admits. “My first school was Notre Dame. I went as a student teacher then was offered a post and stayed right the way through, taking on various roles and responsibilities and eventually worked my way up to headship.”
Although content in her leadership role at Notre Dame Catholic College, Frances felt she had something to offer when asked to consider the position at Savio Salesian College and believed she could use the schools’ similar Catholic ethos to her advantage when managing both sites.
“As an executive headteacher, you are legally responsible for both schools in terms of finance, health and safety regulations and outcomes in terms of results and behaviour. That is a very significant thing to take on. It’s incredibly challenging and so you have to make sure that the systems, procedures and the teams that you have in both schools are realising the vision that you have.”
Having completed her first term as headteacher of Savio Salesian College, Frances reflects on the difference she has begun to make in keeping with her vision for the school. With limited prior knowledge of the school, Frances believes that a lack of pre-conceptions has worked in her favour and allowed her to bring a fresh perspective to the table.
“One of the things that struck me, and one of the things I’d learnt from Notre Dame, is how important the learning environment is,” explains Frances, who was heavily involved in the design process of Notre Dame’s state of the art building. “Savio Salesian College was built in 1964 and not a great deal has happened to it in that space of time – it’s a very traditional building. So I’ve tried to modernise it and create an environment which is light and matches the needs of the students.”
And it’s not only the school’s appearance that has been improved since the new head’s arrival, but the students’ too. Before joining the school, Frances secured funding to introduce a new uniform for students and, although the idea wasn’t initially well received, when the students returned in September the new uniform was hailed a success by all.
Although a new dress code and a fresh lick of paint may not seem like the most obvious place to start, Frances explains that it all comes down to raising standards. Mirroring the standards set for students at Notre Dame Catholic College, Frances is keen to implement high expectations of behaviour, safety and discipline at Savio Salesian College, including a zero tolerance on low level disruption in classes in an effort to keep respect at the top of the agenda.
Passionate that teachers should act as role models for students, Frances has also worked alongside staff to raise teaching standards, focusing in on a range of areas including the way teachers present themselves, how they address their students and how to plan lessons within the Salesian vision.
It’s important that standards are sustained across the board, not least for Frances herself. “I drive myself very hard and work very long hours because you have to in this job, but, equally so, I have a good balance in my life, I look after myself and have a family life which is important,” she explains. “I make an effort in everything I do. It’s about high expectations of oneself and if you have that then you can justifiably have high expectations of the students and the staff.”
For Frances, building and sustaining strong relationships with parents, as well as staff and students, is fundamental to a school’s success. She believes that the partnership between schools and parents is incredibly important, and one which must be based on trust. The notion of being in loco parentis is important to Frances; an element she believes has been lost in the teaching profession over time. She feels that many people do not fully understand the extent to which teachers need to nurture students as well as educate them.
“Children have to be fed, they have to have access to toilets, they have to be dressed appropriately; they have to be in an environment that is safe and comfortable to live in,” explains Frances. “All of those things as a head teacher you are responsible for on a day to day basis. I always tell parents that I become the parent when their child is at school.”
For Frances Harrison, taking on the role of executive head teacher at two Liverpool schools has been a case of so far so good but, as a conscientious leader, she will not rest on her laurels.
“The minute I thought I wasn’t doing a good job and was not able to achieve what I set out to, I would go back to Notre Dame,” says Frances. “But at the moment I feel incredibly fulfilled professionally and being able to share my experience has given me a new confidence. It’s extremely rewarding to see that my vision for Savio Salesian College is having a positive impact in a relatively short space of time.”