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The party of the second part

Neville West on how best to nurture the deputy head - a much-misunderstood beast that takes many forms

Primary deputy heads come in all shapes and sizes - and so do the roles they are expected to perform. Research confirms personal experience that school size is an important factor, as is the scope permitted by the head's view of the deputy's role.

The varieties, however, do not reach Heinz proportions. So picture a few deputies you have known and see if any of them fit the following archetypes.

* Umdies (upwardly mobile deputy heads) belong to an ever-increasing series of networks. Ardent attenders of courses and conferences, UMDIES would sell their grandmother for a headship. They are not likely to drive a Porsche but they may well have an Escort or Fiesta Ghia.

They are streetwise in the ways of headship, sensitively assertive and aware of the value of contacts within the local education authority. Asked about Piaget they will quote Donaldson or Driver. Speak of school culture and they will cite Fullan, Hargreaves or Handy.

They represent the hopes of a beleaguered profession and are keen to ride out the turbulence of a system in change.

* Bereft Deputies are a small but significant sub-group whose loyalty still adheres to the previous headteacher, who has either taken a further headship or an early bath. Such deputies are challenging to the newly appointed head who may well become irked by statements such as "Miss Carfax would not have approached it this way." Bereft deputies, if not handled appropriately, may well turn into Alienated Deputies and head a mutinous crew.

* Neglected Deputies have been passed over by heads who feel they have failed to come up with the goods. Major heart surgery is needed here to rescue the head-deputy relationship. During periods of high turbulence such deputies may become even more marginalised. If they have little or no non-contact time it is increasingly difficult for them to gain a purchase on whole-school issues.

* Mid-Career Frustrated Deputies may have a previous record of high achievement. They seek responsibility but feel that they are not given sufficient opportunities for whole-school initiatives. The norms of the current head may not fit those of the previous head. This situation may be due to misperceptions - the deputy feels that they have the capacity but the head is not convinced. Headteachers who try to be heroic managers of yesteryear or find it difficult to delegate unwittingly stoke up the fires of frustration.

* The Jilted Deputy is a member of that small group of deputy heads who came hopefully and earnestly to the wedding feast of headship but for some reason or other feel that what they have to offer has not been taken up. Hopes and aspirations raised at the interview are not realised following appointment. Jilted deputies may easily turn, over time, into neglected deputies.

* Newly-Appointed Deputies have had the joy of witnessing the fulfilment of their post-interview hopes and aspirations. They constitute a significant sub-group whose needs are often well fulfilled by development programmes tailor-made to match induction into their new role or, even better, by headship programmes designed for headteachers who attend with their deputies. Hopefully, as a consequence, both partners will avoid the pitfalls of certain categories.

* Career Deputies have made the informed decision that they do not wish to apply for headship, feeling that they can make the maximum contribution to their school as deputy head. The needs of this group are largely overlooked. Handled well, they can make an inestimable contribution to their school, but if their role becomes ritualised they are not likely to reach their maximum potential.

* Terminal Deputies are those in a category suggested by a deputy who had only a year to go before retirement. His contribution caused a good deal of humorous comment, but behind the laughter there was a serious point. We need to ensure that such a deputy ends their career on a high, and thought needs to be given to what would constitute an appropriate challenge for a deputy in this situation.

Such a light-hearted typology reflects important issues relating to deputy headship when anxiety is being expressed at the current shortage of candidates for headship. If deputy headship is to be rejuvenated as a career route, we need to recognise that the nature of the head-deputy partnership is critical to the effectiveness of the school and that deputies need non-contact time in which to articulate their senior management role.

Adequate support and development are needed. A key requirement is an equivalent to the Headlamp induction and support scheme for new headteachers. We need a system of school-based management portfolios through which deputy heads can demonstrate their prowess at whole-school level.

School autonomy under local management has reduced the capacity of most advisory services to play a constructive role in re-energising head-deputy relationships which may have become ineffectual. At present, we have no systematic means of remedying this situation.

It would be worth exploring innovative approaches. Some schools circulate the deputy's role between a number of staff for fixed periods, giving more staff experience of senior management.

Headship as partnership is the key to effective development of the role of the deputy head.

Given an adequate consideration of these factors at school and system level we may yet come to replace the term deputy headship with the much more effective concept of assistant headteacher.

* Neville West is a director of QMS Consultancy

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