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Joined at the head till work do us part

Married couples in the staffroom can lead to unholy alliances for all concerned, says David Sassoon.

WHEN I was headteacher of an independent school, I married a member of staff. However, before we tied the knot, we had a mini-conference and agreed that it would be in the best interests of the school and ourselves if one of us left. We also agreed that it did not have to be the woman who resigned. So I did.

On reflection, this was just as well because schools tend to be plagued by micro-politics - even when they do not have to contend with married couples on the staff. In recent times, I have worked at schools where difficult staff relationships added considerably to teachers' bureaucratic and curriculum burdens.

Imagine the (true) case of a female deputy head and her husband - a senior teacher at a school with a new head. The head quickly discovers that she is confronted with a pair who are used to cruising - doing only the minimum required. The school is a small, one-form entry primary, where one "lame duck" can create havoc and two a catastrophe. Shortly after the head arrives, Office for Standards in Education inspectors tramp in. The head marshals her cavalry, works all hours, carries passengers along with her and ensures that the school gets a satisfactory bill of health. Inspectors fail to notice the unholy alliance in the staffroom.

Now the head is left to deal with the aftermath. The senior teacher thinks he merits progression on the upper pay spine, having crossed the threshold (just). The head thinks not. The union muscles in with claims that this entitlement is automatic. The battle lines are drawn and war-war rapidly replaces jaw-jaw. The poor head! Should not these two people - who give each other physical, moral, spiritual and legal succour - have been professionally parted?

Consider another scenario: a head is married to a senior staff member. Both are adding considerable value to the work of the school. On the outside, everything appears hunky-dory. But is it so? When they think that no one is listening, staff members grumble that they are unwilling to criticise the head because his partner is in the staffroom. Often, they claim that more non-contact time is given to the partner while others have to slave. This may not be so, but this is how the relationship is perceived. Needless to say, it does not lead to amity and undermines motivation. And, of course, stifling staffroom criticism leads to pressure-cooker situations.

But sometimes there are more grounds for gossip. During my son's years at secondary school, a female teacher married and divorced two male teachers on the staff and had just begun a liaison with a third. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall of the staffroom. What novelist would not sacrifice all to access this rich vein of raw material?

Other relationships are less disruptive. At least one state school is run by a married couple (as joint headteachers). I believe they are doing a fantastic job. However, many of us would not want to be in their shoes. For some heads, it would be quite intolerable to breathe, eat, drink and sleep their schools. If two are running one school, I wonder what measures they take to have a rest from it. Is dining room, bedroom, study and pillow talk wholly confined to that school? I wonder. But at least the two are at the same level - both heads on a job-share. When one is in, the other is out, and vice versa.

If "unequal" partners work at the same school, however, sharing the same hours professionally and personally, it cannot be good for them. Neither is it conducive to a good learning environment for other staff and pupils.

What happens, for example, when the senior staff member has to discipline his or her partner when the need arises?

Undoubtedly, readers will be able to cite advantages of partners working within a school. Where both are hardworking, professional and dedicated, the whole can well be much greater than the sum of two.

In my experience, however, the pitfalls appear to be much greater. There are rules saying governors with pecuniary interests must declare them and withdraw from a meeting. I suggest a similar regulation preventing partners and spouses serving at the same school. It can do nothing but good for the emotional health of the institution. I, for one, do not regret having left the school where I was a head when I married my partner. Neither does she.

And you know what? We are still together after all these years.

David Sassoon is an educational consultant and clerk to several governing bodies

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