More holiday flexibility for heads could stave off build-up of fatigue

9th January 2009 at 00:00

"Must be great having all those holidays" is a statement guaranteed to unite the teaching profession in peevish spluttering.

Non-teachers are, of course, less interested in the constrictions of being ruled by term times, or that teachers spend summers succumbing to the irresistible pull of paperwork.

Yet woe betide any teacher who disappears during term time for anything other than a rigorous dose of CPD (continuing professional development) - remember the ire heaped on the Celtic-supporting heads who spent a Wednesday in 2003 at the UEFA Cup final in Seville?

East Lothian education and children's services director Don Ledingham believes he may have hit on an ingenious way of giving headteachers more flexibility with their holidays, and perhaps solving the conundrum of how to recruit more heads. There was a mixed reaction, however, from heads and their representatives when The TESS conducted a straw poll.

Mr Ledingham is proposing that heads be given five days which they can take off during the school year, but that for each of those days they will work two days in the summer.

The idea emerged after he agreed to a winding-down arrangement for one of East Lothian's top headteachers, who will retire in the summer. She is spreading 10 days' unpaid leave across the year which, he says, is having an "incredible" impact on her well-being.

More freedom with holidays could, he believes, stave off the "accumulation of fatigue" he experienced as a headteacher, and could prompt more applications for headships.

Mr Ledingham acknowledged that parents and other staff might not react well. He did not rule out, however, making such a scheme open to other teachers.

Moira Leslie, headteacher at Raigmore Primary in Inverness, said she would not take time off during term because she enjoys her job so much and would feel uneasy about squaring her absence with her commitment to pupils.

"For me, it is such a rewarding job," she said. "It begs the question that if a teacher is tired or jaded and needs time off, why is that? You'd need to get to the root of that."

In contrast, Fortrose Academy head Douglas Simpson, who is seconded to Nairn Academy, said: "I think it's a step in the right direction. Flexibility is common in other walks of life and I think this would be quite welcome."

He did not believe it would attract more candidates to headships, however, because the stress of a headteacher's role would not be counterbalanced by more flexible holidays.

Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland, backed the idea as long as it did not involve working more days than were already spent in schools out of term time. He said allowing heads a little time off would enable them to return to school with renewed enthusiasm, and might also persuade more people to apply for headships.

Brian Cooklin, headteacher at Stonelaw High in Rutherglen and past-president of School Leaders Scotland, said any idea which could improve the work-life balance for heads was worth considering.

School Leaders Scotland had been lobbying the Government on this issue, proposing sabbaticals which would allow heads to get away from the "hurly burly of the daily job".

They were also suggesting ways to improve the winding-down scheme for those approaching retirement, which was part of the teachers' agreement but had not proved popular. This could involve heads working three or four days a week and spending the rest of their time training other heads.

"I don't think it will affect recruitment as, compared to other pressures such as bureaucracy and litigation, it's not going to make much difference."

Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, believes the idea is "not feasible"

"What if there's a crisis in the school?" she said. "'Where's the headteacher?' 'Oh, he's having a few days off.' I think the headteacher can't put responsibility on hold for a few days' rest and recuperation on the golf course, nice as it may sound."

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