Dear Ted

19th September 2003 at 01:00
Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own

Our head, who is popular, has announced his wife is taking up a senior post that wasn't advertised. Staff are worried there might be problems. Can they be avoided?

Ted says

There are many examples of married or partnered pairs working successfully in the same school, but there can be difficulties. These can be as much for the couple as for the rest of the staff, because the more senior of a pair might be so anxious to avoid any suggestions of favouritism that the career of the more junior person suffers.

If two senior people living together are thought to be stitching up the school's business at home each night, instead of involving staff in the usual way, it will soon become known. Another problem may arise if one partner has a particular interest or subject, such as drama or maths, that staff feel gains favourable treatment solely because of the relationship rather than the strength or merits of the case. Professional advancement - such as promotion or performance payments - can also become contentious. In certain circumstances, heads will need to declare an interest and hand over their part of the responsibility for decision-making to senior colleagues.

Schools, especially if they're small, can have problems if the couple quarrel or split up. Often the only solution is for one or both to leave, but is compounded if they bicker about who should quit.

The onus is on the couple to behave in a professional manner, which is what thousands have done in similar situations. Should things go wrong, then a skilful staff intermediary will be needed to talk the problems through with the head in an open, sensible and positive manner.

You say

Consult with your governors

I don't think it's a good idea for a married couple to be teaching in the same school, let alone a headteacher manoeuvring his wife into a senior managerial position. However well the staff get on, however "popular" he is (and popularity isn't necessarily an indication of an effective head), there will be times when difficult situations arise. The staff will feel they have to be careful what they say because it might get back to the other one.

It seems odd that this can have happened. Who decides how appointments are made? The head on his own? Were the governors involved? They should have been, especially as this is a senior position. And if his wife was brought in from outside, with no advertisement, this is stranger still.

Making a fuss isn't the way forward, but something must be done. The staff representative on the board of governors should bring the teachers'

concerns to the attention of the chair and ensure that all the correct procedures were applied regarding the appointment.

Primary head, south London

Respond as a group

There is an equal opportunities issue here. The post should have been internally advertised - and if it is a new post, it should have been advertised externally.

Representations to your chair of governors could be made via union representatives or by a group of staff acting together. The governors can rescind the head's decision. If this fails, you could also, as a staff, make a formal complaint to your local education authority. In any event, do not act alone. Make sure your response is a collective one.

Marlene Griffin, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire

Not a fair hearing

The first thing is to consider the possibility that the head's wife is the perfect candidate and that he has done the school community a favour by his far-sighted headhunting. So uniquely talented is this person that it appears a job has been built around her. It does happen. But not here. Even if she is the best candidate, she should be given the opportunity to demonstrate it through a properly conducted, fair and rigorous selection procedure - one from which the head should be excluded by virtue of a prejudicial interest. His action is a flagrant abuse of power and, arguably, is corrupt.

B Preston, Gwent

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