Second fiddles are now leading the orchestras

10th June 2011 at 01:00

The philosopher Seneca tells us: "Be silent as to services you have rendered, but speak of favours you have received."

I try to stick to that, but recently I suffered an indignity that has made me want to shout about all the services that deputy heads like me perform. So will you allow me this short lapse in my moral code, please?

A short while ago I was asked to stand in for the head. At our school it is often essential for me, or the other deputy head, or our director of operations, to hold the fort - no mean feat in a school of 1,900 students and 240 staff. Indeed, filling in for the head is one of the key parts of my role, and is clearly stated in my job description.

I still remember the first time I was left in charge when I was an assistant head in another large school down the road. I could hear the strains of that Carly Simon song, Let the River Run, which plays in the film Working Girl as Melanie Griffith, having made it into big business, sits in her own office surveying her empire.

That was eight years ago. I have, since then, acted as head in three schools, at staff and governors' meetings, assemblies, community meetings, partnership conferences and national conventions.

I represent the eastern region of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), along with another elected colleague, attending the national council every term. It is a service I enjoy immensely, and I am valued significantly by the association, particularly because of my position and my gender. Compared to the its membership demographic, women at assistant head and deputy head level are under-represented on the ASCL's council.

So what has rattled my cage?

Just a few weeks back, our head was invited to a regional consultation of heads of sports-specialist colleges by an association linked to sports specialism, which arranges meetings and dinners from time to time. The head, engaged elsewhere, requested that I attend in his place as I am the link manager for the specialism - and I am his deputy.

When the association was informed of the change of personnel, it sent me an email insisting the event was best attended by headteachers or principals.

To quote the email: "The discussions are aimed at headteachers and in the past when deputy or other members of staff have attended, they have struggled to engage and participate in the discussions due to the strategic and 'whole school level' nature of the message and debates."

Yes, it used the word "struggled". Thank goodness I did not tell them I was blonde as well!

Surely, in most large secondary schools now there is an embedded system of distributed leadership, team work and succession planning that means even the lowly assistant head has a fair idea of what RAISEonline is telling us, or what the mission statement is of the school in which they serve?

At our recent successful Ofsted inspection, one assistant head with ethos responsibility spent four hours with the inspectors on safeguarding, community cohesion and inclusion; another led the debate on our 450-strong sixth-form and another broke down all manner of performance, demographic, attendance and finance data requested by the inspection team.

What hope do we have of filling the yawning gap of headteachers in education, without some sensitive developmental planning in our own schools and an overhaul of entrenched ideas in our professional organisations?

I am attending the sporting network's dine-and-discuss on behalf of the head. He wrote what he described as an "incandescent" email back, telling the organisation of his outrage and demanding a change of decision. He received a contrite response, which apologised profusely for doubting his decision making about who was capable of standing in for him at such an event.

I received no correspondence at all. Vive la difference ...

Di Beddow is deputy head of Hinchingbrooke School in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.

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