The Conversation - Co-headship

10th October 2008 at 01:00
Sarah Fielding shares the headship of a primary school with her husband, Pat. She explains the benefits to Sue Robinson

Q: Why did you decide to share headship of Haydn Primary?

A: Quite simple, really. We had our first baby, and both Pat and I were deputy heads. It seemed logical to explore a job share arrangement as this would allow both of us to maintain our careers while sharing our childcare responsibilities. Having shared a deputy headship for four years, we started to apply for headships, and managed to secure the position at Mayflower Primary in Leicester in July 2000.

Looking back, I think the governors, and local authority officers in both Nottingham City and Leicester, were brave to invest in such an unusual arrangement.

What are the challenges of working as a co-head with your husband?

The obvious challenge of working alongside Pat - indeed, for any job-share - is to make sure you establish very effective methods of communication with each other, and dedicate time to this. Staff, pupils and parents need to know that although our delivery of responses will be entirely different, the key messages and aims are consistent.

Another challenge, particularly while you are establishing a partnership, is to cope with your own ego, accepting that sometimes people will prefer your partner's methods to yours, and vice versa. We have found over the years that this works out fairly evenly. Some people will come to me with issues, and others will choose Pat.

How do you handle communication if you aren't both there? Could this make management harder for staff?

We dedicate time at the end of each day to run through issues and developments. We also have a very detailed briefing on swap-over days. This can range from strategic developments to "So-and-so has hurt her foot". Both are important.

It is vital that this is done effectively so that colleagues, parents and children do not feel they have to go through everything twice. I don't think we get this right all the time and so are grateful for the tolerance of staff when we don't.

Did you have to sell the idea of two heads to parents and staff?

Not really, no. Parents and staff have been inquisitive at the outset, and at times staff have been more cautious about how the job-share will work in practice. Parents have never appeared to be worried about the arrangement in either of the schools we've led. From feedback, one of the advantages for parents seems to be the choice of who to approach. The male-female division has occasionally afforded a deliberate choice by them, sometimes for cultural reasons.

If the role is genuinely shared, is there a problem with who is accountable, particularly if it is strangers who are working together?

Not in our experience, but I can see that this may be an area which could cause problems. Both of us have overall accountability for all of the outcomes of the school, just as a single head does, not just the ones we have been directly engaged with. As the head, we are responsible for the roles and activities performed by the deputy head and senior leadership team, for example. At the end of the day, it is our names on the front page of any inspection report.

Is the school getting two heads for the price of one? Do you have to work just as hard, or does it really give you time to do other things?

Yes. I certainly think this arrangement is good value for the school. A good job-share is much more than the sum of its parts.

Both Pat and I have taken on a range of roles outside headship, including acting as external advisers, school improvement partners, regional hosts for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, and undertaking consultant leadership. Each of these brings new perspectives and ideas from our contact with other schools. This helps to inform the way you work in your own.

You do have to work hard, and as a head you don't switch off when you finish for the day. However, Pat and I have always felt that it is a privilege to be allowed to work in this way and therefore we owe the schools the extra in return.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about shared headship?

Now that there are more of them around, it would be worth talking directly to these heads about how their shared arrangement works and what practical implications there are. Talk to as many people as you can about the advantages and disadvantages. This will help you to formulate a model that is relevant to you.

If you are still committed to sharing the role, I'd say "Go for it!" It is the most fantastic way to work if you find the right partner.

Sue Robinson is headteacher of Cherry Orchard Primary in Birmingham.

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