Two heads are better than none

27th March 2009 at 00:00
The number of headteachers nearing retirement age is forcing schools to consider new models of leadership

Victoria Furness looks at co- headship

"If we were accountants or solicitors, you wouldn't think there was anything unusual about having two people in charge," says Tim Jones, co- head at Byron Court Primary School. The implication is that because this isn't a local accountancy or law firm, but a large primary school in Wembley in northwest London that he's talking about, there's only room for one person at the top.

Until last September that was the case at Byron Court, a school Mr Jones led for 25 years. But last January, he began to consider ways of reducing his workload as he neared retirement. He approached Anita Samani, his deputy head of five years, to ask whether she'd be interested in stepping up to the top job two days a week.

"I'd graduated in 2006 with a National Professional Qualification for Headship, but I wasn't sure I was ready to take the responsibility of a full-time headship yet. When Tim asked about the co-headship I thought, `I've got nothing to lose, it's a good way to get a feel for it'," she says.

Their situation is not unique. The number of headteachers reaching retirement age in England is reaching critical proportions: 60 per cent of headteachers will be eligible to draw their pension in the next decade. In response to this, an increasing number of schools are looking to new models of leadership, such as co-headship, to fill the gap.

The National College for School Leadership (NCSL) estimates that there are currently fewer than 50 job-share co-headships in state schools in England; several examples exist in the independent sector too. There are no known state examples in Wales or Scotland, however.

What's interesting about the co-headship model in England is that no two co-headship arrangements are the same. As in the case of Byron Court Primary School, it may be a "stepping up, stepping down" model. But it could equally be based on a successful job-share partnership at deputy level or the result of both heads wanting to take a broader education role in the community.

This was the reason for the co-headship at Hayesbrook, a secondary boys' school in Tonbridge, Kent, which has been led by co-heads Nigel Blackburn and Debbie Coslett since 2003. Both spend half the week as headteacher with the remainder of their time dedicated to helping other schools as National Leaders of Education (an NCSL initiative to assist struggling schools) and working with other bodies such as the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. Mr Blackburn is also an executive head, working part-time at a school he describes as "in challenging circumstances".

In line with changes to the headship, the two heads have overturned the school's leadership team from a hierarchical structure with one head, one deputy head and two assistant heads to a distributed model with two heads, two deputies and two assistant heads.

On the senior leadership team there's also a middle leader, a business manager and an office manager. So convinced is Mr Blackburn by the new model - despite having led the school on his own prior to the co-headship - he says: "I wouldn't want to go back to single headship; together we give the school far more than we ever could separately."

At Rushey Mead School, a specialist sports and science college in Leicester, Carolyn Robson and Alison Ford have been co-heads since September 2007. Prior to this, Mrs Robson was head and Miss Ford her deputy, with a stint as acting head in the year before Mrs Robson joined Rushey Mead. It was Mrs Robson who first raised the possibility of sharing the head role, as she took on more outreach work, working with local schools and last year chairing the Leicester Secondary Education Improvement Partnership.

Unlike other co-headships where it's a job share arrangement (and the salary is split on a pro-rata basis), both Mrs Robson and Miss Ford work full-time. However, for the purposes of Ofsted and for legal reasons, Mrs Robson is referred to as the headteacher. She's also higher on the leadership pay scale than Miss Ford, but on a day-to-day basis, she says they do the same job.

"When someone wants a headteacher to go to a meeting, one of us will go, or if parents want to see a headteacher, one of us will be available. Alison probably does more operational things, while I do more external work, but it's a subtle difference," she explains.

Despite the differences in style of each co-headship, they share common attributes: joint decision-making, a vision for the school and clear communication.

Professor Ivan Robertson, managing director at business psychology company Robertson Cooper, thinks a co-headship is more likely to be effective if the two heads have complementary skills. "There have been a lot of partnerships from all walks of life where people are different but work well together" he says. "With two people you get two different points of view and as long as they work together, you can benefit from that."

John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, admits to changing his mind about job-sharing co-headships after seeing them work in practice. "I used to be against it and thought it was vital to have a single point of reference in a school, but actually some of the job shares for heads that have come up seem to be effective and add value to the school," he says.

Inevitably there will be times when the co-heads fall out. "We have disagreements in these four walls without a shadow of doubt - but it comes down to personalities," says Mr Blackburn of Hayesbrook.

"I will tend to say, `let's do it', whereas Debbie will say, `let's do it, but can we consider these options first?' so that works well. But had I done what I intended to do without that reflection from a co-head, I'd have got myself into hot water sometimes."

Given the recruitment challenge in headteaching, could co-headship attract candidates to apply for the top job who might not otherwise have done so? Diana Nwabunor, deputy head at Islington Arts amp; Media School in north London, says she'd definitely consider it. "It depends who you're co-head with, but if it's someone who's experienced, you've got instant mentoring and guidance built into your job. And if it's someone of the same status, you've got that collegial aspect."

There's also evidence that far from limiting teachers' career aspirations, co-headship could in fact encourage them. Trudi Taylor was appointed deputy head at Byron Court Primary School on the two days Miss Samani is acting co-head. "I wasn't particularly looking for deputy headship, but it's provided a fabulous opportunity to ease myself in," she says.

She also believes the co-headship enables Miss Samani to devote more time to mentoring her than if they had both held their roles full-time.

But co-headship isn't for everyone. Caroline King, deputy head at Southwold Primary School in Hackney, feels it would mean a loss of control. "It's difficult to get someone who buys into the same ethos and direction as you. Also having put in the hard work, being able to call yourself head and having the buck stop with you, I couldn't imagine I'd want to share that," she says.

For many governors, insufficient information on the terms and conditions of employment for co-heads is a barrier to considering new models of leadership. A report from NCSL found that half of the governors interviewed at schools with co-heads were concerned about the lack of regulation, advice and guidance from the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Many co-heads have the same concerns - especially as many partnerships are split unequally when it comes to pay. While both teachers would be paid on the leadership pay scale, this would mean that the less experienced teacher would earn less, even if they share seniority. "The School Teachers' Review Body has to speed up its deliberations to bring legislation in line with new models of leadership as these new models are raising school standards," says Mrs Coslett.

With the recruitment crisis in headteaching showing no sign of waning, now might be time for the Government to revisit this area. Otherwise it could find the bigger issue isn't having two heads in a school but none.

`We're so similar'

Having been headteacher of Romiley Primary School in Stockport for 18 years, John Furse wasn't completely ready to embrace retirement, but he wanted a little more work-life balance and the opportunity to diversify into consultancy work. At the same time, Sue Coleman, the deputy head, felt she was ready to consider headship as her next career move.

She believes that what clinched the governors' decision to approve the co- headship was the shared vision her and Mr Furse have for the school: "Our viewpoints, attitude and approach are similar. We felt we could work together."

Mr Furse admits to feeling some discomfort as January and the start of the co-headship rolled around. "But because I get on so well with Sue and we think so similarly it hasn't been a problem. In fact I'm thoroughly enjoying it."

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