15th November 2002 at 00:00
Joan Sallis - Answers your questions

Q: Our head has been appointed to a much larger school and begins in January. We are short-listing but can't hope to have his successor in place before Easter. We have two deputies who could "act up" for one or two terms: a very lively but recently-appointed man, and a long-serving, careful and dependable woman.

The latter, who is frankly dull, has begun to apply for headships elsewhere. Some of us can't imagine her in a leading role and fear for the school - surely the pupils should come first? But some governors say she needs the endorsement and the experience, that it would be a dire vote of no confidence to go for a relative youngster, and could be viewed as sex discrimination. What do you think? And should we consult the present head?

A: I agree the needs of the pupils come first and that the feelings and career development needs of the contestants should not be deciding factors. But it would be unusual if it were that simple. The complicating factors are that it is a temporary appointment and that this has its own needs which may not necessarily be in all respects those you consider when appointing your permanent head.

The choice you make will change things, and you must be seen to offer equal opportunities. You will probably be advised by your education authority to offer both deputies the opportunity, and if both are interested make the decision by competitive interview.

I am sure the LEA's good advice will include being very strict with yourselves - and open about criteria and processes.

A few other points. First, being a good acting head may not call for the same qualities as a good permanent appointment. What staff, parents and pupils will primarily want is a safe pair of hands, able to maintain reassuring stability and order, drawing on experience of the school and knowledge of the last post-holder's style and strengths.

It might even be destabilising to have too much of another style briefly stamped on the school, and make it hard to cope with changes the new head may then make.

Second, people change and grow with opportunity and recognition, and this in turn alters the chemistry of relationships. These influences are ones which those who make the choice have to consider, and they must figure in the criteria.

Finally, the roles of other staff will be extended during the inter-regnum to fill gaps and support the successful acting head, and this process can take account of the qualities of the latter and provide complementary support.

Should you consult the present head? Definitely not. The law clearly excludes a head from any involvement in the choice of a successor, even an acting post.

Questions for Joan Sallis should be sent to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, fax 0171 782 32023205, or see

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