Two halves don't make whole head

26th May 2000 at 01:00
Teaching heads struggle to achieve quality with their double load of manager and tutor, writes Douglas Lawson

Thirty-three years ago, an official report stated: "If a headteacher is free from class duties he can more effectively plan and guide the work of the school. One of the greatest problems is that of the teaching head who has to carry the double load."

Two years ago an assistant director of education was quoted in The TES Scotland saying: "When I was out visiting schools, the problem of the teaching head hit me again and again. We are expecting them to do too much."

The role of headteacher with responsibilities for up to five teachers, their classes, support staff and the operation and performance of the whole school, while at the same time having a class commitment, is one which appears to have changed little over several generations. Many have romanticised views of the role, ignoring the extent and complexity of the accumulation of developments affecting both the teaching and headship aspects.

Teaching heads need to do everything that class teachers do to ensure effective learning. They also do everything which a headteacher does, with successful management involving the ability to juggle a wide range of demands for best value, efficiency,effectiveness, performance indicators, development planning, devolved budgets, targets and partnerships.

An increasing number of small schools have nursery classes and a growing number of pupils with special needs. Some small schools have as many as 10 part-time support staff. All this adds to their management load.

Plainly, the job of a headteacher with a class commitment is markedly different from their counterpart even a decade ago.

The allocation of time for management duties varies from authority to authority and depends on the school roll or number of classes, not including nursery. It can be as little as three hours or as much as 10.

However conscientiously and efficiently teaching headteachers try to perform their roles, the reality is they do not give best value in meeting the needs of all pupils in their school. Pupils, parents, the communities they serve, individual headteachers and their families are all disadvantaged because what teaching heads are expected to do is unsustainable.

Opportunities for delegation are limited. Teaching heads in schools with 100 to 200 pupils report an increasing struggle to maintain quality in their teaching. Their role has become so diverse, expansive and responsive that, although they work to long-term goals, there is a sense that keeping control in the short term is impossible.

The experience of many teaching heads also suggsts a high personal cost for the individual and their family. Stress-related illness or absence - or at worst replacing a headteacher - is an expensive business for any school and employing authority.

There is also evidence of poor retention of staff in such a role. In 1996, 32 per cent of teaching heads in Scotland were seeking to move to non-teaching positions or early retirement (Managing Change in Small Scottish Primary Schools by V Wilson and J McPake, SCRE, 1998). Four years later, vacancies for primary heads who have to teach, manage and offer curricular inspiration are proving difficult to fill. Few want the potential nightmare of time management as a teaching head.

In 1998 a House of Commons Select Committee examined existing roles of headteachers and possible future roles. Different arrangements have been tried: for example, one non-teaching head managing two small primary schools some distance apart (featured in The TES Scotland, April 17, 1998). This model is cost-neutral with senior teachers in both schools given assistant headteacher status.

The joint manager has a different range of management demands. There are advantages in improving the learning environment for the two classes previously taught by their respective heads and the removal of any class commitment creates more scope to manage. However, evening work increases considerably, quality time with staff has to be carefully managed, as does presence in classrooms. This arrangement does not reduce the workload but increases certain elements through a new role in two locations.

In a management climate and culture which seeks best value, the role of the teaching head is questionable. Paying for a head to teach a class is expensive. Are the children and parents of the headteacher's class receiving best value if the headteacher's energies are split between class and whole school responsibilities? The teaching head is unable to operate at optimum levels in either sphere.

The advantages of having a headteacher without a fixed class commitment, no matter what the size of school, would be enormous. They include retention of good staff, all-round quality service to pupils and parents, opportunities to develop key areas largely within the working day instead of mostly at home, freedom to timetable quality teaching in each class, scope to monitor and support teaching and learning, better staff development and non-reliance on elusive external teaching cover.

As with much else, it all comes down to cost and how much the headteacher, as the key resource in any school, is invested in and valued.

Douglas Lawson is a teaching head at Pathhead Primary, Midlothian


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