In it together

13th July 2007 at 01:00
A head who lets you think for yourself and gives you plenty of autonomy is the key to being a happy deputy, Charlotte Phillips discovers

Pity the deputy. Whether it's the thankless task of chivvying truant gophers to school like cartoon character Deputy Dawg, or dodging a fair few slings and arrows of outrageous political fortune as with former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, their lot is not a happy one.

If recent reports are to be believed, deputy heads are no exception to the rule. They are less than enamoured of their own jobs, which, they say, are full of frustration but lacking in leadership clout.

According to one survey quoted by the National Council for School Leadership, 43 per cent of deputies have "no desire" to go for headships. Given their perception of the head's role as a bruising combination of responsibility overload and non-stop stress, that's not surprising.

With half of headteachers aged over 50 and nearing retirement, it's no wonder there are predictions of a looming leadership crisis in the UK's 30,000 schools, especially when deputies are portrayed as a burnt-out bunch with little to look forward to until they're called to the great lunch duty rota in the sky. But talk to people like Luke Stephens and a different picture emerges.

Luke joined the Ellen Wilkinson School for Girls in Acton, north west London, in September 2004 as one of two deputy heads.

The school aims for "infinite potential for learning, and a capacity for change", according to its vision statement, and there's a real sense that this is something that applies to the staff, too. "I've never worked in a school so passionate about staff development," Luke says.

He now plans eventually to make that move to the top, a decision that's been influenced by the inspirational leadership of his headteacher, Christine Sydenham.

"We share the same passion for the job and the belief that there's no ceiling on what kids can achieve," he says. It's an attitude that is reflected in his head's hands-off management style. "I keep her in the loop, but she lets me get on with the job, so there's nobody looking over my shoulder. That's really empowering."

His responsibilities are wide-ranging and include everything from target setting, assessments and reports to pastoral issues and catering, with the chance to take an active role in other areas that interest him.

"I don't recall Chris ever turning me down when I've asked to be involved," he says. He cites finance and premises management as examples. They're often viewed as niche areas well outside most deputy heads' remit. Not here.

"We're having a sports hall built and I'm part of the process, which is terrific," he says.

Emma Meredith, acting deputy head at Westwood School in Coventry, has similar experiences working with head Roger Whittall. "He'll often suggest you come in on particular projects I've just been looking at the Building Schools for the Future programme." And when she expressed an interest in timetabling, she was encouraged to go on a course and develop her professional skills.

It's clear that when it comes to the qualities that make good heads stand out, providing opportunities for deputy heads to develop their own skills, talents and strengths comes well up the list. Linda Jagger, whose teaching career spans 35 years, is deputy head at 460-pupil Caldecote Community Primary School in Leicester.

Head Hazel Pulley believes in an open management style. There are no formal meeting rooms, and staff are encouraged to bring their own personality and thinking to discussions.

"Hazel is dynamic and interested not just in the school, but the people in it," says Linda. "There's a sense of support and encouragement. And although there are lots of areas where we agree, I'm my own person with my own leadership style."

In some schools, deputy heads, she says, are expected to hover in the background, toe the party line when the head is away and then slip back into the shadows again. Hazel's approach, in contrast, has seen Linda take on everything from overseeing a visit from an education minister to developing creative partnerships with musicians and artists.

But it can't all be sweetness and light. So what happens when there are disagreements? The difference, say these deputies, is that their heads foster relationships that allow, and even encourage, dissenting voices.

"Some people find conflict difficult, but it's an essential part of good management. You have to listen to what people do and feel," says Linda. "Sometimes Hazel wants to go in one direction and I'll disagree knowing that she's not going make my life a misery as a result."

Luke Stephens shares her views. "Nobody feels Chris has favourites, or that they're hard done by, even if they don't always get want they want. Everything is scrupulously fair."

All view a headship as the next step when they're ready, although that may be some time away. "I want to be a head," says Luke. "But I love my job too much. It's something really special."

But deputy heads are not dewy-eyed romantics. Asked why their outlook and aspirations aren't shared by others, they point to the fact that the head's ob has changed. When you work for somebody who seems overloaded with bureaucracy and directives, they say, following in their footsteps doesn't seem like a life-enhancing career option.

"My experience is with headteachers who get a huge amount of satisfaction from the job. But if you encounter someone who treats it as a thankless task, you can understand why people feel negative about it," says Luke.

Emma Meredith was previously struck by how isolated the head's job could be. "I used to think it was very lonely. Who do you talk to? But now I've seen that the more the head can let go, the better the team is. There's a sense of collective responsibility."

And the way her feelings for the role have changed shows what a dramatic difference a good head can make. "I used to think I didn't want to be a headteacher," she explains. "But I'm a much better leader now because of the way I've been treated here. Roger has made a massive difference. I feel really supported. Now I know I want to be a head of a challenging school."

A challenge to relish

With 10 years' teaching experience, Karen Mills joined Halifax Primary School in Ipswich as deputy head last September. Before that, she was an Advanced Skills Teacher specialising in maths, part of a crack unit that spent a day a week helping out in other schools. Although she enjoyed the job, she wanted a more senior role to make use of the management skills she'd acquired in her previous career as an accountant.

Working with head Anna Hennell James, who was seconded to Halifax when it went into special measures last year, has given her a challenge she relishes.

"I was given free rein with my time to help progress the school out of special measures. Just knowing Anna had faith in me was a huge step forward."

Karen describes Anna's style as focused, driven but also very human someone who never loses sight of the people working with her while they, in turn, feel that she's a very safe pair of hands.

And she reckons that when the time's right for a headship she will, in the nicest possible way, be given a gentle nudge in the right direction.

"I haven't been a deputy for long enough," she explains. "When I have, though, I think Anna will boot me out and encourage me to move on."

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