The phrase 'two heads are better than one' takes on a whole new meaning at a primary in Swindon. Steven Hastings reports on an innovative approach to leadership
If there's one job guaranteed to take up all the hours of the week and then a few more, it's surely that of a headteacher. Running a school is challenging, exhausting and, above all, time-consuming. So it's not really the sort of job you can do on a part-time basis, is it?
"Of course it is," says Steve Hannath. He runs St Bartholomew's Church of England primary in Wootton Bassett, Swindon, on a three-day week, with his deputy standing in for the other two. It's an unusual arrangement. The number of part-time teachers in England and Wales may have doubled in the past 15 years - to around 70,000 - but still only a handful are heads.
The part-time path was not an option Mr Hannath had been planning. At the age of 57, like many heads, he felt ready to retire. But the considerable impact on his pension prompted him to apply instead for Grant 37 money - a financial award that would protect his pension if he retired early, and which he describes as "giving worn-out heads a chance to bow out gracefully".
When his application was turned down - the grants are heavily oversubscribed - he had to think again. So he suggested to the school governors that he make the change to part-time. "We were a bit shocked," admits governor Peter Gransbury. "Your first instinct is that a headteacher belongs in school. You feel they should be there every day." But the governors agreed they would consider Mr Hannath's request. "We undertook hours of research," says Mr Gransbury. "We spoke to everyone who could have been affected. We asked every possible 'what if'. But no one came up with a convincing reason why we shouldn't try it."
There were several factors in the decision to sanction the deal last year. In particular, the governors had every confidence in a head with 20 years' experience, and believed his deputy, Suzanne Lane, was more than capable of taking up the reins for two days a week. "It's not just a question of ability, it's a question of personality," says Mr Gransbury. "If there was any tension between the head and the deputy, this sort of arrangement would be a recipe for disaster. But Suzanne and Steve have an excellent working relationship and we could rely on them to make it a success."
Steve Hannath agrees that the arrangement might not work everywhere. "The important thing is trust. I have confidence in Suzanne's ability, and I trust her. I'm not at home worrying that things are falling apart just because I'm not there."
Suzanne Lane believes that having clearly delineated duties is another reason for the experiment's success. "Steve and I have different strengths. He's an experienced head, very adept at the day-to-day running of the school. But he's been out of the classroom a long time, whereas I still teach." Ms Lane has been given more input in areas such as curriculum development, while Mr Hannath retains control over building and budgets. "The bottom line is that Steve still has control of everything," she says. "He is very definitely the head; I am the deputy. Two days a week I have more responsibility, that's all."
But what if big decisions have to be made on one of those days? Mr Hannath says all deputies have to stand in at some time. "It's part of the job. Decisions are rarely made on the spur of the moment, anyway. And I'm always at the end of the phone."
But this raises one of the most pressing questions about the arrangement. Can a head really just switch off at 4pm on a Wednesday and not think about school again until Monday morning? "I can't deny that I end up working on my days off. But it's of my own choosing and at my own pace. If it's a nice day and the garden is calling, I'll put things to one side. And the staff are very protective - they phone far less than I had expected."
One of Mr Hannath's performance targets as head has been to ease up - for fear that his successor will be forced to do the work of two people. "If I do too much on my days off, Suzanne and I end up putting in seven days a week. It wouldn't be fair to ask someone to follow that."
Good communication is also essential. Ms Lane forewarns Mr Hannath of anything that might be waiting for him. As a last resort, they have a Sunday evening phone conference, but for the most part they rely on an old-fashioned logbook in which Ms Lane summarises events.
Peter Gransbury says the system "works brilliantly. The running of the school is smoother than ever. And I've got the charts and graphs to prove it." These figures are part of an intensive monitoring system established by the governors.
Aware that they would be held accountable if it failed, they sent out a questionnaire to every member of staff from the cleaners and caterers to senior management and fellow governors. At first, information was required once a fortnight, but there was so little negative feedback that the questionnaire now goes out only twice a term.
The evaluation clearly shows that St Bartholomew's has benefited from the arrangement. It has enjoyed the advantage of Mr Hannath's experience, while he's had time to adjust to his retirement later this month (his successor is expected to be a full-time appointment).
And he has been delighted to be able to contribute while escaping the stresses of a five-day week: "It's given me time and space in my life at a stage when I've needed it." But while he is pottering in the garden, it is Ms Lane who is having to weed out problems at school. Mr Hannath recognises that she is potentially the one who loses out on the deal. "It's been easy for me. I've stepped back and stepped away. Suzanne is the one who has had to step forward," he says.
Far from resenting the changes, Ms Lane has embraced an unusual opportunity for professional development, and what she terms "the best kind of mentoring. It wasn't an easy decision. I'm a wife and mother-of-two and the workload has been immense, but it was agreed that it would only be for two years. Knowing it is for a finite period keeps me sane. It's been a chance to dip my toe in the waters of headship. And I get paid more on a Thursday and Friday."
She has found the experience so positive that she is working towards a national professional qualification for headship, and has her sights set on a headship of her own in a few years' time.
But the scheme's success is due not only to the support of staff and governors, but also to the enthusiasm of the parents. "We thought the problems would come from them," says Mr Hannath. "You assume they will be suspicious of this sort of thing and think you are shirking. In fact, it's surprising how many of them come up to me and say 'good for you - you've got a nice little number there'. Which I have. I'd certainly recommend it."
Part-time headships hit the headlines last year, when governors at Langtree school in North Devon refused to allow their headteacher, Rebekah Marshall, to return part-time after maternity leave.
Parents backed the governors' decision and threatened to withdraw their children if she went part-time. This led to a tribunal, which established the right of heads to hold their position on a part-time basis. But in Ms Marshall's case, the dispute could not be resolved, and continues. The National Association of Head Teachers supports part-time headships. "Our only proviso is that it should be clear to staff who is in the role of headteacher at any given time," says a spokesman.
According to the NAHT, the number of heads enquiring about part-time arrangements is increasing. Heads close to retirement and those returning from maternity leave are the two groups most interested.