Women in Leadership and Education – Sue Williamson, CEO of SSAT

SSAT’s CEO, Sue Williamson, shares her thoughts on women in leadership and education and reflects on her experiences and her journey to headship.

I nearly missed out on having a career in schools. When I mentioned to my school teachers that I wanted to be a teacher, they told me not to bother. So, for ten years, I worked as an administrator in the NHS. It was the doctors who encouraged me to take a degree and to pursue my teaching ambition. I learnt much from the medical staff – the importance of teamwork, continuous learning, and drive for innovation.

Women in Leadership

Teamwork is critical to the success of every organisation, and essential in schools. I loved the teamwork in my first school – there were three of us new to teaching and we designed the history curriculum together (pre-National Curriculum); planned field trips to inspire our students, and generally shared what worked or didn’t work in the classroom. I was blessed to have had such an experience in my first four years of teaching. I was also fortunate to be sponsored by the local authority to study for my Masters in History in Education at the Institute of Education. Later I led a team of sixth form tutors – this demanded greater leadership skills, as being a tutor was seen as second place to being a subject teacher.

As a headteacher, developing an outstanding staff team was a major part of the strategy to take the school forward. I arrived at Monks’ Dyke High School in April 1994 – the school was in a town with a grammar school that admitted students at age 14, so Monks’ Dyke was a comprehensive in key stage 3 and a secondary modern in key stage 4. The school needed status, so we applied for technology college status. Everyone had to buy into the vision, and more importantly contribute to ensure its success. I took all the staff to Brooke Weston CTC. I asked them to go with an open mind and we would make the decision after the visit. The staff unanimously agreed to proceed. Technology enhanced subjects across the curriculum, as the staff had ownership.

I did encounter obstacles on my leadership journey. In my second post, I was the first woman appointed to lead an academic department. The senior leadership team bar one were masons and the route to promotion was clear. It took many years to crack this culture. When I applied for headship, I was told that a school needed strong leadership and the unsaid message was that it needed a male leader. In one interview, the local authority advisers recommended me for the post, but the Chair of the Governing Body, a Church of England vicar, said he would not have a woman.

I loved being a headteacher. I loved developing staff and students. We celebrated success and there was a lot of it. Students voted with their feet and stopped applying for admission to the grammar school. So, Gillian Shepherd, Secretary of State for Education, in her last days in office in 1997 approved the grammar school admitting students at age 11. A poor reward for success, but we were resilient and continued our drive to be the best school in the country.

Women in Leadership and Education

Leadership progression in education is not a level playing field. Whether deliberately or unwittingly, women, and particularly women from ethnic minorities are frequently disadvantaged.

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