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Poor deputy drags down morale

Patricia denison answers your leadership questions

We appointed a deputy over a year ago, using what we thought was a meticulous process. The successful candidate came with the right experience, qualifications (including the National Professional Qualification for Headship) and references. She performed well on the day and was scored against clear criteria while teaching, engaging in tasks and giving a presentation. One person on the interview panel, a parent governor, did not share our enthusiasm, but wasn't able to express her doubts clearly, so the appointment was made. I now realise I've made a terrible mistake. I've tried, through performance management procedures, setting targets which she just about manages to achieve, but I'm failing to have any effect on her overall performance. What can I do?

There is nothing more draining for a headteacher than having to address the performance failings of a deputy. A poor deputy undermines not only any progress that the head is striving for, but can damage the school's current position. The deputy's impact is always significant. A poor deputy drags down morale, causes resentment, blocks innovation and severely interferes with team effectiveness. For the head, it can be like keeping a bowl brimming with water when the plug has been removed.

I am sure you are finding it difficult to live with the uncomfortable notion that you are responsible for this crucial appointment. It is worth reflecting on the selection process itself. You must be wondering how you have managed to select someone who seemed to meet all your criteria but who nevertheless is not squaring up to expectations on the job.

What exactly were you looking for? I suspect that your success indicators may have described a set of behaviours or outcomes which could be quite easily spotted and ticked off. You watched this person meeting these criteria. It strikes me that your parent governor alone used what people describe as "gut" feeling to appraise the candidate but, unable to articulate these fears, possibly dismissed them.

Did you spend time trying to picture the type of person who might be "right" for you, the school, your team - not just in terms of competencies, but of characteristics and qualities? Could you have found some way to identify integrity, authenticity, high personal standards and a desire to find perfection? Did your criteria enable candidates to demonstrate a commitment to personal growth?

You must address this situation, and do so cost effectively. Up until now, you have been setting short-term targets - a strategy with limited effect.

It is possible to complete any number of tasks to a satisfactory standard without demonstrating the type of change needed to become a good deputy head. To embark on such a change requires deep levels of reflection, self-awareness and motivation. How can you create the conditions which might stimulate a desire to engage in this process?

You need to start by having a conversation. Put aside your performance management model and treat her like the partner you want her to be. Tell her how you are feeling; explore her perceptions, and don't accept any well-defended denial of the dysfunction of the relationship. Hope that you will trigger an emotional response; if you are open, warm and transparent, convincing her that you want the best, she may find the resources to confess feelings of stress, inadequacy or personal failure. If this happens you will have opened the way to construct a shared picture of the role in terms of its whole being, not as a reductionist set of tasks. Your deputy needs to invest some time in reflecting and (importantly) writing down a description, analysis or portrait of what she considers to be the perfect deputy; she might take the Standards for Headteachers document as a guide, or return to her own, doubtless persuasive, letter of application if she finds it hard to start with a blank sheet.

You, at the same time, should describe your dream, in writing: 'I need someone who ...'

If there is some alignment between the two descriptions, and if your deputy expresses a willingness to take the first step to change, she will then, through coaching, be able to identify a development which she wants to pursue.

The desire and determination to bring about transformation must be hers.

Without this desire she may conclude she was wrong to take on the role, that the school is wrong, the time is wrong, that you are wrong. Be prepared for this outcome; if she hasn't got what it takes, you may have to help her decide to look elsewhere.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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