Share and share alike

17th May 1996 at 01:00
The old saying that two heads are better than one takes on a new dimension in schools, with a surge in the numbers of teachers who are now sharing jobs. Catherine Ormell reports on the boom in double acts.

Observant pupils at Bodiam Church of England Primary School can tell what day of the week it is by the combination of adult faces they see. If Mrs Burt, Mrs Hanson and Mrs Richardson are stalking the corridor, it must be Wednesday. When it's Mrs Cowdery, Mrs Richards and Mrs Massey, it can only be Friday.

For Bodiam is one of a handful of schools in Britain where all the teachers job share. What's more, each pair of teachers works a different combination of days, so the team in school changes almost daily.

If all the coming and going sounds rather flummoxing it doesn't faze the parents, children or head teacher Elizabeth Richards. "The school has more zing," she says in praise of the arrangements."There are more pairs of hands, there's more enthusiasm, there are more ideas."

The system of employing teachers at Bodiam is managed to match the children's educational needs. In each pair, one teacher specialises in science and one in humanities. "They take two sets of strengths into the class," explains Mrs Richards. "In a small school we have more people to cover the breadth of the national curriculum."

The staff, she says, "give me 110 per cent because they are thrilled to be working and able to spend time with their families and are not exhausted by doing both." She has proof, if it's needed, in the miniscule budget needed for supply cover. "We spend very little because we have so few absences."

This unusual situation has arisen naturally at Bodiam over the past five years. One teacher asked to job share after maternity leave, another for health reasons. Mrs Richards herself shares a class with a colleague, and spends the rest of her week on administration. In all, six teachers cover three full-time posts.

Admittedly, Bodiam is a shrimp of a school, but nevertheless it is very successful. On the Kent-Sussex border, it draws 60 pupils from Bodiam and surrounding villages. Since the l980s and increased parental choice, the school has built an extra classroom and the reception class is likely to be oversubscribed this September. The school was praised in last winter's OFSTED report for its management of job shares.

Communication is obviously a major problem as only half the staff are ever in school at any one time. To overcome this each class has a liaison book where teachers write notes to each other, a staff information book is also circulated, and each teacher is required to check the school diary first thing. Staff meetings are held on weekday evenings in one of the teacher's houses.

Unlike some heads with job sharers in their team, Mrs Richards makes a point of speaking to both, not just the one who is in: "Our school depends on the quality of relationships my relationship with the staff, the staff with each other and with the children, and therefore I need to work at my relationship with both halves."

Mrs Richards was initially concerned that the youngest infants might suffer from not having a familiar figure around five days a week, but finds the children accept the situation happily. "They get continuity from a classroom assistant who's full-time and, let's face it, some children relate better to one person than another. This way if they do have a personality clash at least their whole week isn't blighted."

Although, few schools have embraced job sharing as heartily as Bodiam, more have been introducing it. There's no statistical evidence on how many teaching job shares exist but a good indication is that part-time teaching posts have almost doubled in the last 10 years.

Certainly, Kerry George, senior assistant secretary for salaries, pensions and conditions of service, at the National Association of Head Teachers reports that the number of enquiries she gets has increased markedly over the past two years.

"Job shares are becoming a lot more common, particularly in the primary sector." she says. "Heads are ringing up saying, I've got a teacher coming back from maternity leave, what do I do? " Kerry George herself once spent a year in a jobshare that didn't work, and says, "It's true when they go wrong, they go horribly wrong. You need to be reasonably confident that the people you appoint can cooperate and communicate and that they want to make it work.

"Currently our advice is that heads are going to have great difficulty in saying no to a woman returner because the law is such that to refuse part-time working would be indirect sex discrimination. It's pointless to be resistant to the idea, you may as well make a virtue out of it. If you're really nervous, try it on a temporary basis for a year."

From the employee's point of view, a job share is a more secure deal than a part-time contract. The NASUWT advises its members to go for job sharing if they don't want to work full-time because they are less vulnerable to cuts.

Peter Searl is one half of the deputy head of the maths department at Clapton School, an "improving" comprehensive serving 800 girls in Hackney, East London. He agrees it's much better than being one of the "dogsbody part-timers" who are traditionally paid the lowest rates.

"I get an incentive allowance and it's a more responsible post. If you're the only part-timer in a large department of full-timers you do tend to be overlooked."

At 52, Searl had 25 years' experience in the profession before he decided to job share two years ago so he could help care for his mother who was seriously ill. "Some people were surprised; they thought job sharing was just for women with small children, but that didn't occur to me," he says.

Mr Searl, and his job share partner Suki Bains, share a classroom and a tutor group, but unlike their colleagues in the primary sector, they teach mostly different classes. Because they swap over on a Wednesday lunchtime, the timetable has to be structured so the GCSE classes in Years 10 and 11, either have all their lessons in the first half of the week or the second half.

Peter Searl is in good company at Clapton. There are four job sharers out of seven staff in the maths department, including the head of department post, shared by Caroline Keech and Judy Miln.

Mrs Keech is something of a job-sharing veteran, having started when pregnant with her first child under an ILEA scheme 11 years ago, and moving upwards through four different jobshares in the school.

"The issues are different if you're job sharing a managerial role," she says. "We've found it very important to identify each other's strengths so we now have quite clearly defined areas of responsibility, although we wouldn't take decisions without consulting each other.

"I've taken on the department's budget and Judy concentrates on the curriculum. I run department meetings and she represents us at staff meetings.

"Some of the job shares I've been in have worked better than others, and that's been due to the amount of extra time both parties are prepared to put in. There's a lot of frantic paddling under the surface at evenings and weekends to make a job share work. It looks seamless but there's a substantial extra commitment, hours and hours of phone calls."

Although job sharing is not unheard of at deputy head level, it's certainly an oddity in more senior posts. The notion that a headship might be shared is, however, a leap too far for the NAHT. Kerry George, an advocate of job sharing generally, pauses before saying: "Essentially you need to have someone to whom everyone can refer; parents for a start would find it bizarre to find two heads in one school."

Two teachers who've made just such a situation work are Sue Coltman and Stephanie Lacey. They've shared three acting headships in Oxfordshire primary schools in the last couple of years.

They met while working for Oxford local authority as full-time heads. Now both supervise students for Oxford Brookes University, as well as being on call for the local authority to cover a situation where a head leaves suddenly or falls ill.

Their partnership began when they were both offered a temporary headship separately, both had commitments which prevented them taking it on full time.

"We thought, why not do a box and cox? We sat down with the diary and it just came together like a jigsaw."

They may only get a few days notice before they're pitched into a school which has lost a head: "People are not at all sure what this curious double act is going to turn out to be when we first arrive," says Coltman. "I think both governors and teachers immediately assume that it's going to be twice the problem. But that feeling seems to disappear quite fast and in the end they don't think of us as separate people, almost as one quite ordinary person.

"Personally, I'd recommend job sharing to anyone, at any level. It halves the stress and the fatigue. When you have someone to talk about things with you feel you're not alone. In fact, the only drawback I can think of is you get half the salary."

New Ways to Work is an educational charity that offers advice and information to individuals and employers interested in finding out more about job sharing or flexible working. Contact them at 309 Upper Street, London Nl 2TY. Tel: 0171 226 4026. Job Sharing: A Practical Guide by Pam Walton is published by Kogan Page and available from the charity, price Pounds 7.99 inc pp

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