Method, madness, or magic to share heads?

Three pilots in Borders show that small schools benefit when teaching and admin are split, says Yvonne McCracken

EVEN an enchanted character with the magical powers of Professor Dumbledore could find himself swamped in the role of the small school teaching head. No doubt his ability to transcend time and space could be useful when the demands of multiple tasking become overwhelming. A teaching headship may be becoming an impossible role to fulfil effectively.

In Borders, I have been researching and evaluating our "shared headship" pilot projects over five years. Shared headship, where one head (with no class teaching commitment) manages and leads two schools, has operated in six schools so far. We have had three projects with schools of various sizes from single teacher to five classes.

The outcome of this work has convinced us that shared headship can be successful and can overcome many of the difficulties inherent in a teaching headship. Research and review findings on each of the three projects have been surprisingly similar, clearly identifying key features of effective management and leadership. It has also shown clearly where the potential flaws lie.

We are about to re-examine the first shared headship, where a new headteacher introduced the post of shared depute headteacher working part of the week in each school. So far shared headships have been allowed to evolve (within an agreed framework) as school communities become more confident.

Each project has been run as a pilot for 23 months and evaluated before making the arrangement permanent. This allows communities and staff a "get out clause". We have not adopted a "big bang" approach but we have sought opportunities where they arise in small schools.

The major improvement has been in the quality of teaching and learning, particularly for those pupils who would have been in the class of the teaching head. In some of our schools this can affect anything from 33 per cent to 100 per cent of pupils. There are fewer interruptions and there is less need for supply teachers.

Other classes benefit as colleagues no longer have to scramble to cover for the beleaguered teaching head. (In one school this was described as "a wartime spirit".) Parents, pupils and staff in the three evaluations identify this improvement as a crucial aspect.

Continuity and stability are, in fact, the cornerstone. Staff are better supported because the head is more available. They are also relieved that the head can juggle the documents and paperwork.

Most staff comments include some reference to the lifting of a burden. Staff and parents have commented on the guilt they felt at disturbing the head on teaching days. Headteacher accessibility is key. Parents will resist any change to the small school culture. They still expect a high profile headteacher who is accessible and maintains informal lines of communi-cation regardless of whether they are running one school or more.

Shared heads should still know their child's name, know where they sit in class (certainly in the smaller schools) and be able to update parents on their child's progress. Shared headship is most certainly not an escape from these close relationships.

In each pilot, there has been a stark conversion from scepticism and suspicion of local authority motives at the outset to steadfast support for shared headship at the end of the pilot period. Key to this change of heart has been the reassurance that, as well as an improvement in teaching and learning, their school retained its own identity and role within the community.

The downside? The possibility of two school boards, two parent teacher associations with double fund-raising events, two sets of staff with attendant development and review requirements, a need for frenetic management on occasion (did you tell one or both schools about the forthcoming puppet show?).

Good organisational skills, creative and courageous leadership and true teamwork are needed to find solutions to these unique features of shared management. Good communication underpins all of this. Communication is simple; we all know what it is but often do not reach the right people at the right time. The evaluations have shown that we do not need a Professor Dumbledore to make shared headship work but there are some magic ingredients that help it on its way.

Yvonne McCracken is an adviser with Scottish Borders Council's education department.

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