Headteacher Anne Clarke reveals how her personal experience of taking a risk as a headteacher led to success and highlights why risk taking is often vital to school improvement

Risk is very much associated with the management of change. Heads taking over a new school will want to make changes. There seems little point in taking over a new school simply to maintain the status quo. Risks are an intrinsic part of the pattern of change. Chris James and Una Connolly, in Effective Change in Schools, write about ‘the stages and processes associated with the change process, the risks that accompany change’ and ‘the uncertainties associated with change’.

Whenever heads want to make changes they enter turbulent waters, as there is an in-built fear of change in most people – to the extent that even if they dislike a system, staff often prefer to keep it because they are familiar with it. This can be hard to understand. Why would anyone want to continue to wear the old shoes when they can have a shiny new pair?

However, if heads want to move their schools forward and see improvements they will have to embrace risk taking. Stoll and Fink support this view. In 1996 they identified 10 interconnected cultural norms influencing school improvement. One was risk taking, described as ‘we learn by trying something new’. It is also seen as an essential part of good leadership.

What makes a good leader?

‘Risk taking’ is among the qualities found in exemplary leaders identified by Howard Gardner. He writes: ‘The capacity to take risks speaks to a confidence that one will at least sometimes attain success.’ They must also accept the fact that they might fail. This is why heads are possibly reluctant to take risks. They are accountable to so many stakeholders, who do not readily accept failure.

Allan Peachey, principal of Rangitoto College, New Zealand in the 1990s, tells us that at that time principals had to be entrepreneurial and were encouraged to take risks. He says that rather than be punished for making mistakes they will have been expected to learn from their mistakes (‘School Leadership’,TES, 2000).

Steve Munby, the chief executive of the National College of School Leadership, at a recent NCSL conference praised courageous school leaders who take risks. A willingness to embrace risk taking is therefore seen as a worthwhile trait for a school leader to possess.

Taking risks: a personal account

Shortly after taking up the headship of Benton Park, I made the suggestion to the leadership group that the school, with the governing body, should consider applying for specialist school status. Other schools in the area were being successful in joining what was then the Specialist Schools Trust, and I thought that we would be left behind if we did not put in a bid to become a technology college. We had specific strengths is this area ready to be capitalized upon.

At that time it was incumbent upon the school to obtain £50,000 in sponsorship monies, a task that we were finding impossible. Nowhere could we find businesses ready to sponsor an enterprising school which wanted to develop technology, not only within the school but also within the wider community.

I sent out hundreds of letters but none elicited a positive response. At that time I was linked with a business partner as part of the Leadership Program for Serving Headteachers. He is a high-flyer in a law firm and we met on a termly basis to share ideas on our different fields of work. I shared with him my frustrations at not being able to raise any sponsorship monies and he suggested I place an advertisement in the journal Private Eye. I was not sure how this would be received at school, as it seemed an unusual step to take – a risk in effect!

However, sheer desperation persuaded me that I had to take a risk. Following the more orthodox forms of communication was getting me nowhere. In June 2001 I placed the following advertisement in
Private Eye:

EYE EDUCATION. Are you a firm believer in state education and would welcome the opportunity of sponsoring an entrepreneurial state head to develop her school into a CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE? We would love to hear from you. Please contact Box 2029.

A step too far?

I held my breath. Had I taken a step too far? Then the publicity wheels were set in motion. The Friday following the publication of the advertisement in Private Eye, the TES ran an article with the title ‘Head advertises for a sugar daddy’ and explained my plight.

My world started to shake. What will governors make of this? The following day, 9 June 2001, The Independent ran my story under the banner ‘School head advertises in Private Eye for sponsors’, a less controversial strapline then the one used by the TES. In terms of creating publicity, the risk had raised our profile – but would the money start to roll in?

It did. The wife of a local businessman who had sponsorship funds at his disposal saw the article in The Independent and suggested to her husband that he support ‘an enterprising local head’. Then, hearing that we had acquired some sponsorship monies from a neighboring source, a local group that specializes in supporting technology in schools, and which had been very generous to us in the past, donated a handsome sum towards the £50,000.

It was a tremendous relief to me and when the DfES, as it was then, accepted our third bid and gave us technology college status then the doors were open for the school to really develop as an institution and to serve its local community better.

The TES ran a further article the following February saying ‘Private Eye gamble pays off’ and that my ‘unusual approach to sponsorship had been vindicated’. Did I receive any adverse comments from the governors? I think the fact that my actions produced the desired outcome silenced any potential adverse criticism but I would not want to have to keep making such risky maneuvers in order to keep the school in the vanguard of educational initiatives.

Enterprise education for pupils

Sir Digby Jones, the president of HTI, wrote in the spring edition 2007 of the HTI leadership journal that ‘risk aversion is becoming a way of life’. He continued: ‘Schools need to nurture a spirit of enterprise in children so that we can revive our reputation as nation of innovators. Risk taking is the lifeblood of innovation and we depend on innovation for economic success. Developing “can-do” attitudes must be given equal priority to skills development – another huge challenge for our country.’

This attitude is reflected in the statutory requirements of the new National Curriculum. In the program of study (PoS) for ‘PSHE: Economic wellbeing and financial capability’ it says that pupils will learn to be enterprising. The PoS continues: ‘They learn how to make and act on reasonable risk/reward assessments and develop a “can-do” attitude and the drive to make ideas happen.’

There is even a section on risk, stressing the need for: understanding risk in both positive and negative terms; understanding the need to manage risk in the context of financial and career choices; and taking risks and learning from mistakes.

At Benton Park we have embraced enterprise education. We have appointed an ‘enterprise, careers and citizenship coordinator’ who, among other things, organizes the enterprise days for our KS4 pupils, so that they receive their statutory entitlement. The Children’s Act of 2004 firmly stressed the need for schools to ensure that their pupils ‘achieve economic wellbeing’ and enterprise education is one of the ways in which schools can reach this goal.

We also offer courses in our curriculum that contain a business, financial and enterprise element. At both KS4 and KS5 we offer business studies and economics. At KS5 we offer the Institute of Financial Services Certificate and Diploma courses. All courses collectively have a good uptake, successful results and lead to students going on to study business or economics at university or going into related jobs. These students should be well equipped to handle risk taking and to understand the consequences.

Sir Digby Jones believes that ‘our country needs people with a winning mentality, which means taking kids to places where they can win, not refusing to expose them to the risk of losing.’ He is concerned that risk management has become confused simply with health and safety compliance and that we are avoiding ‘giving young people opportunities to experience, judge and manage risk.’

Hopefully, at Benton Park, students engaging with our enterprise curriculum will explore the issues of risk taking. As head, I have led by example with my enterprising advertisement in Private Eye. Without this risk I am sure we would never have got our sponsorship money and we would not have become a specialist school. Without the status of being a technology college our development in many vital areas would have been delayed if not halted, so I say long live ‘risk taking’!

This article first appeared in Secondary Headship – December 2007