Let heads fly a kite sometimes

19th December 2008 at 00:00

Earlier this week, I met one of our most experienced and exceptional headteachers who is due to retire at the end of the session. In a bespoke winding-down arrangement, we have agreed that she can take 10 days of unpaid leave during the year. She has spread these days over the course of the year to provide a number of extended weekends.

The impact on her health and wellbeing has been incredible and she feels so much more able to undertake her job - to the benefit of herself and the school.

It was as we discussed the personal benefits of this arrangement that I wondered if a different arrangement, with the same outcome, might have some potential for other headteachers.

Three years ago, I moved from being a headteacher to being an educational administrator at East Lothian Council. My holiday entitlement changed from 65 days a year to 27 days plus public holidays. Yet, despite the apparent loss in days, the biggest difference has been that I can now take days off when I want, even during term time. As a rule, I try to avoid extended periods of absence during term time, but I do try to take a number of single days throughout the year to create long weekends. The result is that I can avoid the kind of accumulation of fatigue that used to occur when I was a headteacher.

It's universally recognised that we have a problem recruiting headteachers. People look at the stress involved and the relatively low pay differential between a deputy headteacher and headteacher and decide the negatives outweigh the positives.

But what if headteachers could trade in some of their current holiday entitlement for a number of single days of leave, which could be taken during term time? As a starting point, I would suggest that the exchange rate would be two days for one day. So, if a headteacher wanted to have five days' leave throughout the year during term time, they would have to exchange 10 days of their current holiday entitlement.

To be honest, I would have gone for something like this, as I probably spent that number of days in school during holiday periods trying to catch up and prepare. From an employer's perspective, we could arrange for a proportion of these "exchanged" days to be taken at an agreed time and, in so doing, enable collegiate tasks to be undertaken - for example, cluster working, particularly if other colleagues were working at the same time.

The first issue to be resolved is parental reaction to the notion that their child's headteacher is taking a day off during term time when their children are in school. In a way, this exposes some of the mythology upon which parents base their expectations - that is, a school cannot operate without the headteacher being present. The reality is that most schools manage very well without the headteacher being in the school.

There must be a balance here, but I believe the idea could be presented to parents as a positive step in maintaining the health and well-being of their school leader.

The other big problem with such an innovation would be with members of staff. Many teachers and senior managers come into school during their holidays but, in the scheme that I have in mind, they would not be able to transfer these days for additional days off during term - or could they? For all that this may prove to be an exercise in "kite flying", I do believe we need to explore ways to make the job of headteacher more attractive and more in line with modern employment practice, recognising the year-round responsibilities that are associated with school leadership.

Don Ledingham is acting director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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