Should a deputy be loyal or truthful?

5th September 2003 at 01:00
Our deputy head has been seconded to higher things and I will be acting deputy from September. Our school is doing abysmally as far as key stage 2 national tests are concerned. The head is a lovely lady but she is struggling. Staff are very hard working but we have a few bolshy ones. One has been off with "stress" just before our Ofsted inspection and wants to be integrated back into school gradually. Advisers are buzzing around us.

I want to support the head in every way I can but there are things which in my opinion need addressing. Discipline is one. What should a deputy's role be? Do I speak frankly to governors or advisers or retain my loyalty to the head?

The question you ask touches a chord with many of us as it raises a number of moral and political issues about leadership and management. All adults working with children are in the full spotlight of accountability. The pressure applied through target-setting, league tables and a mindset of continuous improvement is enormous. The situation that you are now in needs managing in this climate.

Implicit in your question is that you want the situation to improve for the sake of the children. You are right to be outraged if your pupils are not getting the best education possible within the resources at your disposal.

It is important that you act within an appropriate value system. Schools are communities and relationships are more than just "functional". Bearing in mind these moral guidelines that you seem to have set yourself, what next?

The starting point is the head. You need a full and frank discussion with her. I would suggest off the school premises, outside the school day when you can both give the conversation the weight it requires.You could put your thoughts on paper for the head to read before the meeting, analysing your concerns and the link between poor behaviour and poor student performance. Make sure it is fair and balanced and not a liturgy of complaints against her. Your ideas need to cover supporting those staff working hard (perhaps they need to be advised how to work smarter) and convincing or confronting the bolshy ones.

A deputy's role is just that - to deputise for the head. You could be called upon to lead the school and it is important that if that were to happen it is moving along the track with which you feel comfortable. You are the "eyes and ears" of the head to some extent but you are also part of the "heart and mind". Ideally the relationship between you will be an open, honest, confidential one based on trust and mutual respect. It takes time for such a relationship to develop. You have a good opportunity here to move the relationship forward.

The head may be relieved that you have come forward with these views and adopt your solutions. If the solutions work she may even claim them to be her own - such unfortunately can be the lot of deputies! If she adopts them and they work - then great. You will have done the right thing.

Ideally your discussion will lead to an acceptance that there are issues to be addressed and you can develop a joint action plan that involves (speedy) discussion with staff and probably governors and the advisers if they are in a position to provide support. The plan needs to make a difference quickly but be sustainable. Ofsted, sensibly, is working on the basis that all schools have issues. Good schools know what they are and have effective plans in place that are known, and evaluated to make the improvements necessary. We should not be too proud or insecure to accept effective external help. Even then, as I know only too well, it always feels that you are skating on ice that is sometimes dangerously thin. No effective leaders are completely content with the job they are doing. There are always worries.

If the head refuses to recognise that there is a problem or she adopts measures but they do not work because of the way she applies them then you have to make your concerns known to her. It is a good idea to keep a record of what you have done for analysis and reflective learning when things do work out. If there is no change then, with her knowledge, you may well have to seek the advice of someone you trust and respect outside of the school.

Your first priority is to help shape a plan and put your full weight behind the head in pulling all the stops out to make the improvements that you rightly want for your pupils.

This is a marvellous opportunity to learn from your acting deputy experience and to make a real difference to the lives of the young people in your care. Senior leadership in schools is very different from teaching.

Learn from this experience. You never know, you may get a taste for it and wish to be in charge of your own school. If you do - don't forget how you felt when you wrote your letter so that you avoid similar concerns in your deputy.

All success in your mission.

Robin Precey has been in education for 31 years, the past 12 as head of Seaford Head community college in East Sussex. He is also a consultant on the National College for School Leadership's New Visions programme. Do you have a school leadership or management question?Contact Susan Young at The TES,

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