Head's PA? It's the teaching staff who need the PA

Who decided that the PA should always work for the headteacher? Wouldn't they be better used to tackle surplus piles of marking, says Stephen Petty

Woman with six arms, juggling tasks

I have been puzzling over this for many years, without ever working out the answer: why is it always the headteacher who gets the personal assistant? 

This is a question not driven by some grudge against any particular head or PA. Quite the opposite. The pair in position at our place have always been utterly brilliant, kind, patient and extremely hard-working professionals. 

This has always been the case. In fact I believe that, in the entire 450-year history of heads and PAs at my present school (once a grammar, now a comprehensive), the headteacher's study has never once been used as a sex dungeon. Not even for an afternoon. How many heads’ studies across the land can boast that? 

'PA to those with shedloads of marking'

I just take issue (and I could be wrong, of course) with the seemingly nationwide default decision to assign the PA to the head. Schools would surely benefit far more if future PAs were given a slight change in job description and job title. 

Why not take them away from the head’s diary-planner, for instance, and train them instead to read mark-schemes and to mark surplus piles of books? If the job title “PA to the head” became “PA to those with a shedload of marking”, surely there would be a huge net gain to all schools? 

Headteachers do plainly benefit from having a PA. But I would just suggest that they are the very people least in need of one. They have so much more time than other staff to plan and personally assist themselves. Theirs is an unenviable, highly pressurised and high-profile role, yes, but the plain fact is that their week is not automatically taken up from the outset with 20 or more hours of lessons, and with all the associated marking and preparation commitments.

Most staff have a relatively tiny amount of time to manage, somehow, all their correspondence, admin, phone calls home to parents and so on. Yet, for some reason it is the head who has most help with such matters. 

Salary differential

Admittedly, the PA does also help to break down the sheer volume of communication and issues coming the head’s way. But much of that imposing inbox of correspondence is simply the headteacher’s equivalent of marking: it may take an age, but it is an important part of the job. 

And, in the case of some of the more remote heads we hear about, the very absence of a PA may encourage more personal and regular communication with staff and other stakeholders. 

There is also, of course, the question of salary differential. Most heads I have met are worth every penny they earn. Yet it does seem a little odd that the best-remunerated member of staff has another paid person to help them with their work.  

Stampede

Consider the better value we might get instead from a PA who is trained and assigned to help a varying selection of staff. This would help those on the fullest timetables to cope better, and could free up more time for middle managers to get on with managing their teams. 

By taking on perhaps 10 to 20 hours of teachers’ marking each week, the PA could help to ease many of those unacceptable workloads – not a remedy, but certainly offering some pain relief. 

The only problem would be the stampede of people asking for such help. Maybe the fairest way would be for there to be some kind of weekly raffle in the staffroom.

And, if the head still happens to win a few times, then so be it.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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