A promising double act

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Being a head is half the load for two school leaders who decided to share the job. Martin Whittaker reports

Are two heads better than one? Peter Box and Paul Whitcombe think so. They jointly run Lord Scudamore primary school in Hereford. But unlike many job-sharing heads who hand over their office for half the week, Messrs Whitcombe and Box both work full-time, sharing equally the tasks of teaching and running the school.

It might seem a luxury to have two full-time heads while other schools struggle to find one. But they insist that running the school in this way is not only cost-effective, but also means they can share problems and challenge each other. It gives them the time and energy to try out new ideas.

This is much in evidence around the colourful classrooms and corridors of Lord Scudamore. It was one of the forerunners with Assessment for Learning, and Year 6 children now mark each other's work. The school has developed writers' workshops in which children sit in twos and threes to offer critiques on each others' work.

The heads say the workshops have contributed to a dramatic improvement in writing. Pupils have a big say in the layout of their classrooms, which no longer feature traditional brown chairs and desks. In the heads' shared Y6 class, adjustable furniture allows pupils to choose where and how they sit.

On Fridays, pupils take part in creative afternoons, offering a range of activities including sewing, watercolour painting and work with visiting artists.

Peter Box says: "Rather than always being on the receiving end of initiatives, we are allowed to be innovators, and we do things that we actually design ourselves because we are both still in the classroom."

Lord Scudamore is a large infant and junior school with a nursery class, and 650 pupils on roll. Five per cent of children have free school meals.

The school gained beacon status in September 2001 and its leadership was praised in its last Ofsted inspection more than two years ago. Its key stage 2 test results in 2005 were above average in English and science - 87 per cent and 93 per cent respectively gaining level 4 or above, although maths was slightly below average at 69 per cent.

The two heads have had an unofficial partnership approach for five years, but officially became co-heads a year ago.

Mr Whitcombe had been deputy head, but they found their working relationship shifting away from a headdeputy relationship because they shared a class and networked with other schools as part of their beacon role. Also, the school did not want to lose its deputy.

"We were working very much on the same projects - we think alike," says Mr Box. "Paul either needed to go and get a headship somewhere else, or we needed to be innovative here."

They each spend two days a week teaching. Peter teaches maths and science while Paul teaches English, some science and PE. On Wednesdays, another teacher takes their class and they are in the office together. For the rest of the time, when one is teaching the other is managing.

So, how do they divide up their tasks? Paul Whitcombe opens a cupboard to reveal their secret weapon - Post-it notes stuck on the back of the door.

"Whatever is here, it means we can take it off and work on it," he says.

"So Peter is doing self-evaluation, and I'm doing the school improvement plan. Then on a Wednesday we can talk about it, how far we have got." Mr Box chips in: "It's like being co-authors."

It seems a very close working relationship - they even finish each other's sentences.

So, is there ever any tension? Peter says they do challenge one another, but it helps that they are like-minded. The big advantageis that if there is a major problem, the two heads can share it.

"We are very open and very honest," says Mr Whitcombe.

"But we do tend to think about things in the same way," adds Mr Box.

Sharing the role also means they can get out more. Mr Box is a consultant head and Mr Whitcombe is part of the DfES Innovations Champions scheme.

Also jointly, they run a National College for School Leadership networked learning community and a primary strategy network.

Another benefit is work-life balance. Both have families and are married to teachers, but they say they avoid taking work home.

"If I do anything at home, it's entirely by choice," says Mr Box. "My wife works far harder than I do at home."

How does the school afford two heads' salaries? By sharing a Y6 class, they save the cost of a full-time teacher. It also pays in other ways. Teaching keeps them both fresh and able to come up with new ideas.

"It's so refreshing because your job isn't stuck in the office, or in the classroom worried about what is in the office," says Mr Whitcombe. "There are lots of aspects to this job - it allows us the time and freedom to do them well."

But does the governing body cope with two heads? Robert North, the chair of governors, says it works well.

"Both of them come to meetings and they take different parts," he says. "If there's a particular area of expertise that one has, he will speak and there's no difficulty. They complement each other.

"Headteachers can be solo performers, but we have none of that. And they both take a significant teaching workload, which in a school of 650 pupils is very special. It means they have great credibility with other members of the teaching staff, and they are very accessible.

"I know in some situations heads aren't very welcome in the staffroom.

That's certainly not the case with us."

Name: Lord Scudamore primary school, Hereford

School type: Infants and junior school with nursery class.

Results: 2005 KS2 test results: 87 per cent achieved level 4 or above in English; 93 per cent in science; and 69 per cent in maths.

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