Headteacher secondment can reap rewards for their schools, deputies and governors. Alison Shepherd reports
it would be easy to imagine that the national shortage of high-quality headteachers would lead governors to fight like playground bullies to hold on to theirs. But across the country, heads are leaving their schools behind, with the blessings of their governing bodies, to take up secondments in many different spheres.
The management and professional skills of effective heads are in demand.
Struggling neighbours, education authorities, government agencies, private companies and unions have all reaped the rewards of their borrowed expertise. And for the most part, it would seem that the schools benefit in the long run, when their heads return refreshed and revitalised.
Anne Welsh is head of George Stephenson high school in Newcastle, but last year she was the full-time president of the Secondary Heads Association.
She is no doubt that her secondment has benefited both her and her school.
"Being a headteacher is exciting, challenging and exhilarating, but it is also a very intense experience which allows you no time to reflect. Your own professional development can be subsumed by the needs of others," she says.
"My secondment was a learning experience that has helped to make me a better head."
Mrs Welsh's role while on secondment was very different from that in George Stephenson. Many of her days were spent in meetings with politicians and officials presenting the view of a practitioner on their policies and initiatives. But she also spent time visiting heads across the country, picking up good ideas and passing them on and storing them to use herself when she returned to the "driving seat".
"All heads should be given the chance to have time away from their school to reflect and study. In many other countries this would be by way of sabbaticals," she says.
But despite the evident success of her own secondment, Mrs Welsh does not think it would suit all schools or heads.
"I wouldn't have been able to do it a few years ago as my school was not then at the stage where I could comfortably leave. The school has to be at a certain point in its development. We have a very strong leadership team and two deputies who shared my role, giving them a great professional development opportunity."
So great, in fact, that one of Mrs Welsh's deputies takes up her own headship in January.
Because of the strength of the school's leadership, the George Stephenson governors were also very supportive of the secondment and even parents'
fears were allayed when the school fully explained the situation.
"There were all sorts of rumours about me not coming back, but I wrote to all the parents explaining very clearly what was happening and when I would return," says Mrs Welsh, who also ensured she met her new Year 7s in the term before they started.
The gubernatorial and parental support was rewarded by a 6 per cent rise in GCSE results in the year that Mrs Welsh was away.
Jane Phillips, past chair of the National Association of School Governors, echoes Mrs Welsh's positive view of secondment but understands how daunting it could be for governors to consider losing one of the school's biggest assets, even for a few months. But she believes they should look beyond the short-term disruption before they turn down a secondment request.
"It might seem the easy option to say no, because governors fear that heads might not want to return. But then the chances are they will leave anyway because you have blocked a chance for them to develop," says Ms Phillips.
"If you stop a move for no good reason, you will probably set in process changes that might damage your relationship with the head and the rest of the school."
She sees secondment as an ideal practical application of what she believes is most governors' motivation "to enhance education and to help others develop in their roles". Heads can share their expertise, while they, their temporary replacement and other senior teachers receive invaluable professional development.
Ms Phillips recommends that governing bodies ensure that the secondment is arranged to suit their needs. How long will the head be away; who is paying his or her wages; what help will there be for the teacher who becomes acting head? Most of all, make sure your school is not left out of pocket.
And you never know: you may get back a headteacher who realises how much she or he has missed you, brimful of new ideas and enthusiasm.
TEN QUESTIONS FOR GOVERNORS
* Is your school's management structure capable of maintaining standards in the head's absence?
* Do you have a senior teacher or teachers who can step into your head's shoes?
* What support and training is available locally for the acting head and others temporarily promoted?
* When will the head return?
* Who is paying the head's salary during the secondment period?
* What will you pay the acting head and deputy and on which scale?
* How will you ensure a smooth transfer both at the beginning and the end of the secondment?
* Will you be recompensed if you have to advertise for a temporary replacement?
* Is there a formal programme to give real value to the professional development gained?
* How will you inform parents and pupils of the temporary changes?