Deputies short on incentives for a leap into headship

4th May 2007 at 01:00
"When are you going to be a head?" A question posed at least weekly. If I were unhappy in my current job, I might be frustrated into taking a risk.

As it is, there is little incentive to make that jump. I am challenged, fulfilled and supported in my current role, learning from a head who sets high standards for the post that I aspire to. In those circumstances, the prospect of moving to a headship is, at present, not an attractive one.

It is not about salary, although many deputy heads in larger primaries have to look for large primary headships to avoid wage cuts. Of three friends who have recently taken headships, one took a cut and the other two got "wage matching" deals. So there is very little financial incentive.

But there are more significant issues that make me uneasy about taking the step. For example, the level of professional support for heads, whatever their length of service, is inconsistent and often non-existent. The pages of The TES are filled each week with initiatives and expectations from every quarter. The Department for Education and Skills and local authorities hand expectations to the heads of individual schools with ever-decreasing support. Staff and unions question and challenge these initiatives with ever-increasing scepticism. Parents and the wider community are empowered to demand an improvement in results, pupil happiness and wider provision. Stuck in the middle of all this is the head, making isolated decisions about what to develop and what to ignore.

Also, there seems to be no duty of care. My head looks after me, as she does the other staff. Anyone who works in a school knows that when a head has a caring approach to staff well-being and makes this a priority, the school develops a caring ethos that extends to every corner. Heads who care and set good standards spend lots of their time listening to the concerns of staff, parents, pupils and representatives of the community. Difficult issues are discussed and considered by heads who have no natural channels for the resulting thoughts and dilemmas. A duty of care may rest technically with the governing body, but its capacity to carry out this role is as wide and varied as schools themselves.

A further example is how "leading" is seen as a key skill, yet there is little acknowledgement of the real skills a head needs. Forming and implementing visions, thinking outside boxes and aiming at targets is all very well, but none of this can be done in a badly managed school. The reality is that heads do have to take an interest in the day-to-day running of the school - that is not an inferior skill that can be delegated to others. So where was the training in my National Professional Qualification for Headship for managing building projects, redundancies, recruitment crises, budget issues and all the other problems that can come without further guidance? Such training was notable by its absence.

How reassuring it would be if every local authority had a heads' support team whereby experienced education staff had a brief to focus on the head's well-being and practical and professional needs. These should be people with whom heads could speak both in confidence, and with confidence that they will be listened to. This could be the sharp end of a wider support network that affirmed the role of heads as a demanding one and sought to support them in it, rather than support the notion that finding it hard means you're doing something wrong.

There are, of course, many other pressures on heads and there always will be. Few decisions in teaching are clear-cut, so if I am going to wait till it "makes sense" to apply for headship, I might as well forget it. However, changing roles or schools is always a step of faith, particularly if the current role is a happy one. If I were to jump ship, I would like some assurance that there's a lifeboat at the ready.

The author is deputy head of a large primary school in the Midlands

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