Deputy heads in primary schools are torn between their teaching and managerial duties. Simon Midgley reports on a new survey of their attitudes
The conflicts felt by primary school deputy heads, who have to be both manager and teacher, show up clearly in a major study carried out in Hertfordshire.
The survey, led by Geoff Southworth, professor of education at Reading University, emphasises how important it is for deputies to be allowed enough time away from their pupils to get management tasks done.
It lends weight to the widely held view that deputies are often expected to do the impossible: help manage a school while coping with a full teaching load.
Deputies' opinions were gathered from 250 primary schools last year, and the findings have implications for the future shape of the role nationally. The survey shows that as demands on schools and staff have grown in the Nineties, with the increasing emphasis on raising standards and value-added measures of performance, the deputies' dilemma has become more acute.
Deputies complained about the tensions their dual role created. "It always feels there is a pull between the children and deputy head role," said one. "I cannot perform my duties as a classroom teacher and a deputy head satisfactorily," said another. A third said: "It is difficult balancing the job of manager against classroom teacher."
They described their difficulties. "Am I first and foremost a teacher working with children, or do my other managerial duties come first?" asked one. Another said: "Deputy head duties militate against excellent classroom practice and unplanned events can result in time being stolen from the children to meet responsibilities." And, "Classes taught by the deputy head, full time, do not get as good a deal as those taught by other staff".
Although most have some non-contact time - between two and three hours a week - many felt it was not enough.
Comments on the time allocated include "pathetically insufficient", "drop in the ocean" and "Impossible! What can you do with 0.5 hours per fortnight?" One deputy said: "It is never enough. I often have to work until 6 or 7pm to finish reports etc. I start at 7.30am and work through lunch hour to try to keep up with classroom preparation. 3.30-5pm is always clubs, matches, etc. Staff meetings. Sundays seem to be disappearing with marking."
But other deputies said teaching kept them in touch with the realities of the classroom and won them respect from their colleagues.
Deputies said the attitude of their heads was a critical factor. "A deputy may only be as effective as the partnership with the head dictates," one said. Another added: "I believe that the job of deputy can be made exciting, challenging, difficult, depending on the nature of the headteacher."
Professor Southworth says that while non-contact time clearly helps to alleviate some of the pressures, it does not get rid of them. It may even increase tension because time away from the classroom may create feelings of guilt.
He suggests heads and deputies might review these issues every term. Adjustments could be made in the light of the needs of a particular class or a school's priorities. He adds that as deputies are increasingly involved in teacher appraisal, they may have to learn to be more frank with colleagues.
One conclusion is that new deputies need to be inducted into their role. Heads need to be prepared to act as their mentors, and non-contact time should be seen as an entitlement - not a luxury.
A deputy head's job description should be negotiated, explicit and reviewed annually. The core obligations and priorities of the role should be identified clearly.
Given that many deputies play an important, continuing role in the school's day-to-day management, Professor Southworth suggests that it might be more appropriate to rename them assistant headteachers.
He says that without non-teaching time the deputy's role is being marginalised. "Deputies should be more assertive and pro-active in sustaining a dialogue which includes the negotiation and renegotiation of the role. There may be a need for some quite important and sensitive and subtle adjustments to what the deputy is focusing on at one time in the school year compared with another. I suspect that degree of flexibility and responsiveness of the deputy to the school's needs is not happening."
The other important conclusion, Professor Southworth says, is that deputy headship still seems to be more about management than leading the school's improvement. The role tends to be an administrative one, rather than professional leadership.
'Inside Deputy Headship: A report of the findings from a survey of primary school deputy headteachers in Hertfordshire' is available from Hertfordshire Education Services Library, Wheathampstead, AL4 8PY. Tel:01582 830318, for pound;4 plus pound;1 pamp;p.