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Anyone seen the head?

Patricia Denison answers your leadership questions

I have been deputy of a large junior school in fairly challenging circumstances for four years. The head took early retirement for health reasons and the present incumbent, the only applicant, was appointed in January. Staff hoped that at last the school would benefit from strong leadership. But it has become obvious that this head does not have what it takes. She has already had a lot of time off with an undisclosed recurrent health problem. She doesn't communicate and we feel in the dark about her plans for the school. I run the school day-to-day. The staff are beginning to revolt. Should I consult the chairman of governors or education authority for advice?

I'm wondering if your governors were pressured into making a less than desirable appointment because of the school's circumstances. In situations like this it is often much better to bring in an interim head to haul the school together, giving governors time to make a considered choice. These poor appointments, often made in haste, can do untold damage and, once made, are very difficult to manage.

You don't mention the involvement of either the chair of governors or LEA representative, so it is not clear whether people other than the staff know about the head's health problems. In any case, you find yourself in an invidious position: you certainly have not formed a working partnership with this person and the leadership of the school is floundering.

You have some options. You could immediately share your concerns with the chair of governors. That would result in a meeting between chair and head to establish the seriousness of the health problem, possibly leading to the involvement of the LEA's health and welfare personnel. If these absences look set to continue, governors have a duty of care to the head. They need a plan to enable her to make pressure-free decisions about how to manage her sickness, while ensuring that the needs of the school are met.

However, the head would doubtless take a dim view of a deputy who embarked on this sort of action without first talking to her. Similarly, seeking advice from the LEA consultant should not, in my opinion, be your first step.

My feeling is that you have been waiting for some sort of definitive leadership action from your head, and in its absence have made a judgment about her capability to do the job. You must take a bigger role in this partnership. Stop hanging back, waiting for action and implicitly condoning the disapproval of the staff. Immediately arrange a meeting with her, preferably off-site and free of interruptions. An hour won't do - try to put aside a day.

I would see this meeting having three parts. First, it would provide you with the chance to explain your concerns and feelings. You should do this warmly, but clearly and with absolute honesty . You must be careful not to sound accusatory. You want the head to feel confident that she can then explain her own position without inhibition. You will then be able to look for solutions and agree the first steps.

Whatever the outcome, I am sure the meeting will help you and the head establish a sense of trust, crucial to the relationship, and that, health problems aside, you will have begun to develop a close partnership.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary school near Woking in Surrey.

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