Every Wednesday, the headteachers of Bygrove Primary and Stebon Primary in Poplar, East London, swap schools.
Jo Franklin and Jeremy Iver are co-headteachers of the two primaries, which are just 15 minutes’ walk apart. But if they don’t bump into each other on the way, they can catch up later at home. They not only share a job – they’re also married to each other.
“One reason we knew it would work is because we have a relationship that’s not fiery,” Ms Franklin says. “We have robust discussions about things that are school-related – discussions that perhaps we could not have with other members of the team – but we have a high level of trust.”
Ms Franklin joined Bygrove in 2001 as deputy headteacher, becoming head two years later. The small, 235-pupil primary is nestled among the terraces of the Isle of Dogs. It’s a school where 65 per cent of pupils have claimed free meals, despite being so close to Canary Wharf that the shadow of the financial district’s tallest tower falls across the playground. It’s also a school where every child leaves with the expected level 4 in reading and maths, and two-thirds reach the higher level 5.
“When I got pregnant, things were on the way up and I didn’t want to take a big break,” Ms Franklin says. “I loved my job. But I also wanted to be a mum.”
So she presented evidence on shared headship to the governors of Bygrove. They agreed to give it a go on a one-year trial basis and the advert for a co-head was placed. “I thought it was a brilliant idea, so I applied,” says Mr Iver, who at the time was deputy headteacher of another Poplar primary school.
“It was a risk for him,” Ms Franklin says, “to resign from a full-time deputy post to do a temporary, one-year post that maybe wouldn’t work out. But I thought our relationship would be fine, so I just stepped back.”
Their eldest child, Summer, was born in May 2006. Two days later, Mr Iver got the job. And the following September the couple began working together.
“Our work and home lives have always intermingled, even when we were working in different schools,” Ms Franklin says. “We are genuinely interested and genuinely care, so we want to talk about work at home. It’s part of our lives.”
“We do talk about other stuff, too,” Mr Iver quickly points out.
Discussing work at home is one thing, but bringing it home is another, and they are aware of the dangers of competitive headship. “That was something we did talk about,” Ms Franklin says. “If someone wants to work, that shouldn’t make the other person feel bad. It’s home space. If someone doesn’t want to work, then there can’t be pressure on them to feel they should.”
For six years, the couple split their time between Bygrove and their young children (they have a second daughter, India). Then the headship of Stebon Primary was advertised and they decided to apply for it as co-heads.
“We always thought that once the children were at school age, one of us would stay [at Bygrove] and the other would seek another headship elsewhere,” Mr Iver says.
“But Stebon came up when Bygrove was doing extremely well – Ofsted said it was outstanding and we had a teaching school application in. Why chuck away a model that was proving successful?”
Stebon is outwardly different to Bygrove. It has about 500 pupils and is expanding further; the two-storey building has its own swimming pool, an art room and a large playground.
But there are common themes in both schools: parents are welcomed; inclusion is a priority; there is an emphasis on language and literacy; and teachers try to make learning irresistible.
Katy Darby, an assistant head at Stebon, joined the school from Bygrove and thinks that having headteachers who are married works well. “They are constantly in communication with each other,” she says. “And both have very specific skills: Jeremy likes data and analysis, and Jo is a fantastic strategic thinker.”
Not that everything is perfect. “The challenge of co-headship is that you have to own the other person’s mistakes,” Ms Franklin says. “You cannot say, ‘Well, that was so-and-so’s fault.’ You have to take responsibility.
“It also means the other person gets to take credit for your successes, as you do theirs. And you do have to have a close relationship to do that, so being married is an advantage.”
The couple are usually in separate schools, but they come together for certain meetings and events – Year 6 leavers’ assemblies, for example, which neither can bear to miss.
“No one bats an eyelid at the arrangement now,” Ms Franklin says. “But there was once a parent who didn’t know the set-up and started gossiping that Jeremy and I were having an affair. I guess the personal space between us was a bit too close.”
An entire generation has passed through Bygrove since the couple took over, and none of the pupils now remembers what it was like to have just one headteacher. “They’re both kind,” 11-year-old Sameer says. “It doesn’t seem odd at all."