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What does it take to be a good leader? Sean Pavitt examines the complex role of the special school head 

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Napoleon Bonaparte defined a leader as “a dealer in hope”, and I believe this description embodies the essence of the successful special school leader in the 21st century.

Around 1.5 per cent of all children attend special schools in the UK. The nature of these children means that their personal tools, such as social skills, cognitive ability and emotional resilience, are often under-developed, leading to lower attainment and often under achievement. Limited problem solving and communication skills can result in behaviour which imposes barriers upon opportunity and, in some cases, additional medical or physical needs may further restrict success. The resultant pressures upon the family can cause family fractures and multi-agency involvement, with higher than average numbers identified as having concerns relating to safeguarding or child protection.

Within this context, when dealing with some of the most vulnerable and disaffected people in our society, the special school head must be able to inspire a sense of hope and promote a feeling of optimism by shaping the way others feel and think about their future and the future of others. The way in which you inspire hope is a matter for individuals, and although no special school leader is the same, common traits appear to characterize the role: a strong ethical drive, emotional resilience, determination, creativity and, often, maverick tendencies.

In 2007, I left my very secure role as the Principal of an independent special school for children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) to embark upon a new and exciting professional development opportunity. I found this at Longspee School in Poole. The school caters for pupils with extreme emotional, behavioural and social difficulties (EBSD) aged from five years up to year 14.

Meeting the needs of a diverse school community is a daily challenge.During my first morning at the school, I was asked to come to Class 9 to offer support; I witnessed a twelve year old pupil throw a table through the window and the class of seven disappear out of the window, over the anti-climb fence and off into the sunset. I returned the following day for a similar round of activities. Later that term, the school was judged as being inadequate by OfSTED and placed in “special measures”. The report commented that:

“Too often, the school is not a calm and well ordered place…Too regularly, staff are required to attend to outbursts of seriously inappropriate behaviour…This has a negative impact on the progress pupils make in their learning and in the standards they achieve, which are inadequate” (OfSTED 2007).

Emotional intelligence & resilience

The daily work of the special school regularly touches on the extremes of human experience. Parents can have highly charged emotions as they battle for children who are not adequately equipped to deal with the stress and complexity of modern England, where our success in promoting the wellbeing of our children has been judged as being at a level most similar to Romania (Child Poverty Agency 2009).

The role of the special school head increasingly demands that we be therapist, educator, politician and life coach, but in many ways our most significant role is to act as a spiritual guardian for those whom circumstances have left with fragile personal qualities and/or limited capacities.

One of the biggest potential stumbling blocks in the role is that you become caught by the emotional hooks of the job, when sympathy begins to overwhelm you and clear thinking becomes compromised. Emotional resilience is the central attribute of the special school head: an ability to empathise yet be objective, to be compassionate yet driven, to be emotional, yet think clearly, and to be creative yet highly strategic. If we can develop our personal capacity so that we are able to develop both personally and professionally from the experiences of our pupils, then we can capitalise upon ongoing and inbuilt professional development opportunities which develop our effectiveness daily.

The Navigator: finding the way

As a leader, we must be able to map a clear route through some very challenging and often contrasting terrain. All of the 42 pupils who attend Longspee have a history of displaying extremely challenging behaviour. In addition, they experience difficulties associated with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, speech and language, mental health, conduct disorders, medical problems, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or the consequences of trauma or abuse.

In one class, for example, you may find a pupil with autism, who is best supported using consistent, low arousal approaches, alongside another pupil with difficulties associated with traumatic experiences, who presents volatile and unpredictable high arousal behaviours when traumatic memories are triggered. Both pupils have EBSD and both have a right to learn, progress and develop. It is the responsibility of the head to empower the school community to enable this to happen. Indeed, meeting the needs of a diverse school community is a daily challenge for the special school head.

When leading a team through such unpredictable and challenging terrain, it is essential to maintain a clear view of the destination (which is embodied in the ethos and values of the school), whilst being in possession of a range of different “maps of the territory” (that is, knowledge of different learning approaches, psychological models and therapeutic models) to help navigate the journey. Continual development of professional knowledge is pivotal to the success of the special head.

The therapist: understanding emotions

A particularly useful map to utilise is one which enables the consideration of emotional needs in order to support the performance of both pupils and staff. Within the special school context, nothing is more important than a firm understanding of the importance of emotional health. The vast majority of pupils may be described as emotionally fragile due to limited personal tools and resources, and this may be exacerbated as pupils get older and become more aware of how different their lives are when compared with their peers in a mainstream setting.

Strong emotions can hamper logical thought and halt learning, as neurological functions begin to retreat into survival mode. Almost all pupils who attend special schools may be described as being emotionally fragile, and for many, the area of the brain responsible for the moderation of strong emotions (limbic system) does not work as effectively as it should. It is essential, therefore, to have a strong understanding of how emotions impact upon learning and behaviour.

An example of an approach which facilitates the consideration of emotional needs is the human givens model of psychotherapy. This suggests that all human beings are born with a number of needs and the inner resources to get these needs met. These “human givens” include:

  • security — safe territory and an environment which allows us to develop fully
  • attention (the giving and receiving of it) — a form of nutrition
  • a sense of autonomy and control — having volition to make responsible choices
  • emotional intimacy — having another person accept us totally for who we are
  • feeling part of a wider community
  • privacy — the opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience
  • a sense of status within social groupings
  • a sense of competence and achievement
  • meaning and purpose, which come from being stretched in what we do and think.

Utilising such an approach can be useful when confronted by the complex experiences and learning problems facing pupils and staff alike. It provides a checklist to ensure that the school can provide the emotionally healthy opportunities necessary to increase wellbeing for all concerned.

Personal knowledge

In order to successfully lead a school, you must know your community well; you must know its barriers, strengths, needs, aspirations and drivers. This is a particular challenge in the special school setting. With relatively small pupil numbers, individual changes in circumstances can often affect the entire community, and a significant amount of in-year pupil movement in and out of the school can change class dynamics considerably.

Problematic domestic situations can also place unpredictable stresses upon pupils’ learning and behaviour, and having a high proportion of pupils taking prescribed medication means that there is a constant need to consider and accommodate side effects to support learning. Age ranges and ability groups are often not uniform throughout the school population and emotional development may vary greatly amongst pupils within the same year group. Indeed, it is all but impossible to have a clear picture of the needs of pupil cohorts from one year to the next.  

The special school head also has to deal with the pressures imposed by the Government’s agenda, which can force us to focus upon accomplishing tasks and meeting targets which may be of arguable importance. This may be described as a “pace setting” leadership style (Goleman et al, 2002), which has been evidenced as being one of the least effective leadership styles when used on a long-term basis. To avoid falling foul of such an approach, we must develop insight into our competence in our use of leadership styles, understand what dominant or default leadership styles are and which styles we are least competent at using, and recognise what impact our personal leadership approach has upon the school climate and outcomes.

The conductor

Three years ago, Longspee was identified as being inadequate in almost every area. In April 2010, it was identified as having an outstanding capacity to improve. “There is no sense of complacency at Longspee. The governors, Headteacher, senior leadership team and staff are all committed to improving pupils’ academic achievement and emotional health so that while every individual may enter with a ‘past’, as the school motto says, each ‘leaves with a future’.” (HMI, 2010)

The success of the special head is judged by the outcomes of the children whom s/he serves. To switch analogy, the special head is the like a conductor of an orchestra. The musicians are our colleagues (the teachers and support staff who are the real stars of the show), the quality of pupil outcomes is the sweetness of the music created, and our audience is made up of parents and the pupils themselves. The head must be able to interpret an unclear score so that we are able to guide colleagues to produce chords, melodies, harmonies, timbres and arrangements which inspire the imagination of a diverse and often challenging audience so that it sets them alight, giving capacity and hope for the future.

Further information

Sean Pavitt is Headteacher of Longspee School and is currently working with the Southern Education Leadership Trust on ways to promote the emotional resilience of school leaders:

This article was first published in issue 49 (November/December 2010) of SEN Magazine.

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