Hilary Wilce explains why attitudes might have to change.
Two weeks ago, in a landmark case, Rebekah Marshall, the teaching head of a small Devon primary school, won the right to return to her job part-time after having a baby. The case, brought by the National Association of Head Teachers, provoked objections from a range of commentators, including the newspaper columnist Melanie Phillips, who decreed that having a school head on site anything less than every day amounted to treating parents and children "with contempt".
But, as anyone who has spent any time in schools knows, no head is on site every day, and school leadership is already a creative and varied job, and likely to get more so in the face of a shrinking pool of applicants and the growing clamour for more flexible working.
Professor John Howson, an expert in education employment, says that until now schools have been "baled out" by women willing to replicate the pattern of male careers. "But if that changes, there will be a significant impact on the future pattern of jobs." Add to this, he says, the upturn in the number of women in their thirties being appointed primary heads, and the stage is set for yet more conflict between family and career, or radical changes in the way the job is done.
Rebekah Marshall asked to job-share after the birth of her fourth child in May l999. She had been head for five settled years at Langtree community primary, a village school with 80 pupils. Like most primary heads in rural areas, she also had a teaching responsibility, in her case for three-and-a-half days a week. She was also special needs co-ordinator. She wanted to return to work three days a week, while a senior teacher at the school moved up to become her deputy, and acting head on the days she was not there.
She did not expect the arrangement to be permanent and thought it could change over time. But Langtree's governors, and Devon local education authority, said no, pointing out that Ofsted had found serious weaknesses at the school which needed to be addressed by "clear, unambiguous leadership".
Rebekah Marshall's own competence was never in question. The weaknesses Ofsted highlighted had, she points out, developed during her maternity leave, and if Devon had been willing to take a more creative view of the situation, she could have been back in post last February, when her maternity leave ended, "discussing matters and sharing ideas" with a deputy. The solution could have been "very profitable for everyone".
Instead, she has spent the past eight months at home, waiting for an employment tribunal to decide her future. Earlier this month the tribunal ruled in Rebekah Marshall's favour, finding Devon guilty of sexual discrimination and giving the authority 28 days to come up with a part-time package.
While she is "pleased and relieved" at the verdict, she feels sore at how rigid and unimaginative her employer has been. "Equal opportunities has always seemed low on Devon's list of priorities," she says. "Although the majority of teachers are women, a high proportion of heads are men, and I'm not aware of it doing much to address these sorts of issues."
Which is particularly silly, because rural authorities such as Devon have trouble finding good heads. "Many of our schools are small. The pay for heads is on the low side, it's not that much more than being a class teacher, and anyone taking the job still has to teach, so I know a lot of people who would make really great heads but who say it's not worth it."
Devon has also proved itself badly out of step with other authorities that support alternative models of headship. Some of these arrangements have sprung from crisis and necessity. Troubleshooting "superheads" spread themselves over two institutions, retired heads come back three days a week to run schools where a headship remains unfilled, and some consortia of rural schools share a head.
But others have come about because heads have wanted to step back from their posts to deal with family responsibilities - and have then discovered that, far from presenting problems, their unconventional arrangements have often brought unexpected benefits.
"It was fantastic," says Julia Thomas, who spent a year working four days a week as head of Coteford infants school, in Hillingdon, west London, and found that it not only improved her home life, but revitalised her whole view of school. "My son went there, and when I went in to drop him off and pick him up on the Friday the other parents could see me as a mother who wanted to spend time with her child, and I could see the school through the eyes of an ordinary parent."
It wasn't a job share - "I retained control of the school, the vision and direction were still mine" - but she worked closely with her deputy, and all day-to-day issues were dealt with by whoever was at the helm. "It got a hundred per cent vote from the governors. They knew me, and they knew the school was safe, and the local authority said it had no problem if they had no problem. We never had a single negative comment from anyone. It improved the quality of my life so much. If you are happy you don't mind doing the work, and you do it better." In fact if her deputy had not fallen ill, she says, she would like still to be doing it today.
Clare Wesson became a "temporary part-time head" at Wirksworth Church infants school, in Derbyshire, after her second child was born. She had already been head there for three years "and the vice-chair of my governors was a retired secondary head who had had deputies sharing and knew it could work". She also examined all the options before proposing how she would like to split her job with her deputy, starting at three days a week. "One of the by-products of considering a change like this is that it makes you look very carefully at all your systems and how well they are working." Another benefit was the re-arranged staffing, which put another class teacher into the school.
She also got support from Derbyshire, which was committed to equal opportunities. "I remember spending a lot of time with our legal people trying to work out if it was possible," says Sue Hanbury, who was then an assistant education officer with the county, and who now directs the Government's Sure Start scheme in Cornwall. "It was choppy water. We kept coming up against definitions of the duties of the headteacher, singular. But Clare was a good head, the governors didn't want to lose her, and they knew they would have done, so in the end they went ahead."
Clare Wesson retained overall control of the school. "I lived in the town and was always flexible about going in, but there is very little crisis management in a well-organised school and it all went smoothly," she says. "We had a little notebook in which we wrote everything down and neither of us ever went home without making sure everything was in it."
But Ms Wesson, now head of Bradley Row first school, in Exeter, cautions that such shares always depend on circumstances, and believes they should not be an automatic right. "I have job-shares in my school now, and I always have to think about the impact on the children. If there's something in it for the school, you need to be open to the benefits." There could be problems, however, if people were too rigid about their hours.
For Kerry George, senior assistant secretary at the NAHT, the Rebekah Marshall judgment is a landmark ruling ("I've been waiting for this for 15 years"). She says it opens up new opportunities for career women, while offering schools a way to hang on to valued leaders. "These sorts of arrangements are not all that unusual, and nine out of ten of them are temporary anyway. There's never any real problem sorting out the finances, and good leadership is all about good systems and clear lines of accountability. After all, Ofsted itself often drools on about school team management. In our experience, hardly anyone considers it a problem."
Men, too, see the possibilities. "They don't want to carry on killing themselves doing the job, but they don't want to take all their expertise out of the profession, either. They see it as a way of bowing out slowly, while also helping train up the next generation.
"We can't afford to lose these people, and if Rebekah Marshall hadn't won her case she'd have gone. The internal crisis at senior management level in schools is massive, and it's only hidden because of how hard people in those schools are prepared to work to keep things afloat. We need to wake up to the fact we're not even papering over the cracks, we're putting tissue over a crevasse."
Recent figures underline this claim, with the number of headship vacancies in the first half of this year up 50 per cent on two years ago, to 1,799, while in the previous year one in four headships was having to be re-advertised to attract decent candidates. Catholic schools were even harder hit, with 40 per cent of headships in 1999 having to be re-advertised. And this situation looks set to worsen when mandatory qualifications for heads come in in 2002.
Meanwhile, fewer teachers are coming into the profession, while for those already inside it the lure of the outside world is growing stronger. "In the past it wasn't all that easy to get out," says Professor John Howson. "But in a knowledge-based economy, teachers - who can do training, who have IT skills, and who know how to communicate - are equipped with exactly the sort of skills that everyone wants to get their hands on."
As a result, he says, schools are heading for the same sort of position as the Church of England when it realised it could no longer provide a priest for every parish. "The choice might be close the schools and move the children, or put one person in charge of lots of those schools and move that person around." Or, as Devon has discovered, let the teacher stay put but look creatively at how she could do the same job in a new, imaginative way.
Meanwhile, Rebekah Marshall just wants to get back to work and has no plans to claim damages. "It's water under the bridge," she says. "We need to put it behind us and look to the future."
* 'WE HAD COMPLETELY DIFFERENT PERSONALITIES AND WE COMPLEMENTED EACH OTHER'
Penry Williams (above right) and John Matthews (left) had joint acting headship thrust upon them four years ago when their head was off sick for a year. They were left to steer the then-struggling Heyward community school, in Cinderford, Gloucestershire, through a school improvement programme and an Ofsted inspection.
"We made sure we always had one face," says Mr Williams, who is still deputy head at the school. "We might have disagreed sometimes in private, but what it meant was we had to sort everything out at the beginning, behind closed doors, before we went public. We had completely different personalities and we complemented each other. John was a little bit younger, and more outgoing. I was the one to roll my sleeves up and get on with the nitty-gritty. Sometimes people in school tried to play us off against each other a little bit, but I don't think they ever got very far. Of course, it all depends on personalities, doesn't it? It could have been horrendous.
"But Osted thought it was fantastic. They said our teamwork 'contributed significantly to the education provided by the school and had inspired the action being taken by the staff to improve the standards and achievements of students'."
"It was an excellent time, a very positive experience for the two of us because we had a shared perspective," says John Matthews, now a deputy head of Brislington school and sixth-form centre, Bristol's largest secondary school.
"Two years earlier, we had gone through the whole gambit of creating a vision for the school, and had both been instrumental in this. Which probably helped because, during the time we were in charge, we had to sit and jointly take some very difficult decisions. We had a budget deficit and we were being pushed on this. And we had one severe disciplinary incident involving a member of staff - I remember us sitting down together and analysing the best way forward.
"I tended to be the public face and stand up and do the talking, but in more private meetings that could be reversed and Penry might take the lead. We shared out responsibilities and no one ever had any problems with it, not parents or pupils.
"Although the emphasis these days is all on the idea of the charismatic head, the reality is this kind of working together is what happens in any senior management team, and if you've got complementary skills it can be very productive."