Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

The sum of all parts?

The sum of all parts...

Sunita Bains is 35 and in her third year of headship but her relatively young age does not phase her. She talks to Angela Spencer about the challenges of being a 'young leader'.

Sitting in the kitchen of her Birmingham home feeding four-month-old Sebastian, Sunita Bains doesn't exactly look the part of headteacher.

Granted she is on maternity leave and in family repose. But 35-year-old Sunita, who is used to reading surprise in the eyes of those who meet her for the first time, makes no apology for her age.

"Leadership is not about first impressions," she says. "And while I believe in experience, I don't believe it is measured in years served, rather in work done. I think more and more people are accepting of that fact."

The work done in this case spans 13 years and five secondary schools: first as a mathematics teacher in Birmingham, then head of maths, deputy head at 29 and, three years ago, the move to be head of Blake Valley Technology College in Hednesford, Staffordshire.

"I never set out to be a headteacher," she said. "I never even considered where I might be in five years' time. I've always focused on my current role and enjoyed making that a success.

Age concerns

"Winning hearts and minds is to me what it's all about," she said. "Looking back I'm sure there were people who initially had reservations about my age, but they never said as much and I refused to let it be an issue.

"Of course I was aware of it from time to time. When you're mentoring someone twice your age, you can't help but be aware. But I wasn't going to get bogged down with that.

"Being conscious of my own age would also mean being conscious of theirs and, just as not all young people are dynamic and thrusting, not all older members of staff are stuck in their ways.

"I have appointed people who have been in the same job for years with great success. Far more important to me was taking the time to really get to know my staff and to read what motivates and worries them.

"That for me is the hardest and most important aspect of being a school leader. In matters of technology, school systems, business operations etc. you can draw on the expertise of others.

"But you can't expect to get the best out of your staff unless you sit down and listen to what they are feeling, try to understand any resistance to change that they may have, and help overcome fears that put barriers in the way of achieving your school's goals.

"Not a day goes by when I don't evaluate the conversations and decisions I have been involved in. Everyone makes mistakes and evaluation is a very good way to spot any areas that might need repair."

Calling in the experts

That said, no one is not an island and Sunita enjoys strong support and encouragement from her leadership team, from her husband Tom - himself a young leader in the telecoms industry - and from Staffordshire LEA.

"I make no bones at all about calling on the expertise of contacts in the LEA to double check important letters, documents and HR issues.

"The LEA introduced me to a retired headteacher, Alan Cooper, who has visited me at the school and who now acts as my mentor. He is very gifted at listening and allows me to check and balance my own perceptions of things that are happening, which is very useful."

Sunita has also made good use of the SHA consultancy service in reviewing the school curriculum. "Don't ever be afraid to ask for help," she said.

She worked hard to earn the respect and trust of staff, parents and pupils, using the biggest talent at her disposal - emotional intelligence.

Those talents will stand her in school stead for her next big move - returning to work when Sebastian is six months old in June.

"Until then I'm keeping in touch with the school mainly via email, but am enjoying my maternity leave in the knowledge that the excellent leadership team and staff at Blake Valley are not just coping without me, they're flying along."

Young leaders conference

Sunita Bains is one of the speakers at The Leadership Journey, SHA's one-day conference for young leaders on 28 June in Birmingham.

The conference is for young leaders and potential leaders in secondary schools and colleges who may already be members of the leadership team or who are likely to move into a school/college leadership role. You do not need to be a SHA member to attend.

For more information contact the Conferences Offices at conferences@sha.org.uk or 0116 299 1122 or visit www.sha.org.uk

© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders