Two heads are better than one

4th March 2011 at 00:00
Headteacher is not a job that can be shared - or so they told Fiona Lowson, who has made just such an arrangement work with Ruth Billingham. So what are their secrets and what do staff and pupils think?

A headteacher job-share is like an arranged marriage, says Ruth Billingham, headteacher at Comrie Primary, Perth and Kinross. "We had been introduced, but until this happened we had never spent any time together."

In terms of being in the same place at the same time, that is still largely true, says Fiona Lowson, headteacher at Comrie Primary, Perth and Kinross. But there are more ways of being together than occupying the same space. "We knew that communication would be a big issue. So we have long handover conversations on the telephone twice a week."

Comrie would be an uneventful school, however, if that were all it took to make a headteacher job-share work. Two heads in one school is a big step, and it needed a great deal of discussion, consultation and indeed head- scratching at first.

"We were making it up as we went along," says Mrs Billingham. "No one could tell us how to get it right. There might be other headteacher job- shares in Scotland, but if there are, we don't know about them."

Staff, pupils and parents at Comrie all comment on the fact that the two headteachers are very different people. With a science degree and some experience of industry, Mrs Billingham is the younger and quieter. Mrs Lowson can seem stricter and her English and arts background gives her a particular interest in language and literacy. "But Ruth is also interested in reading and writing," she says.

"I work with staff on planning. Ruth does more attainment and tracking. There are places where the job divides. But there are probably more where we take equal responsibility."

The diversity of interests, personalities and ways of working is an advantage for the school, they both say. But perhaps not for the smooth running of the relationship?

"You have to adapt to each other," says Mrs Billingham. "I'm happy to keep things in my head, for instance, while Fiona likes things written down.

"You get to know yourself through working closely with someone who does things differently. It's a valuable insight."

Right from the start, they both knew, and Perth and Kinross emphasised, that a clear communication strategy would be vital, says Mrs Lowson. "Our manager had ideas about that and so did we. So we talked about prioritising. Things to do with children had to come first. Then staff and parents."

Emails played an important role. "We developed a colour-coding system," says Mrs Lowson. "Pale and dark blue for emails that one of us has read and the other needs to see. Red for urgent. Orange for a headteacher needs to deal with it this week. Pink for all the staff to read."

The system works well now but there were teething troubles, says Mrs Billingham. "At first we copied emails to our home addresses. That was no good. It was hard to separate work and personal emails, and you'd be doing lots of work on days you were supposed to be off."

The computer is invaluable, but so too is pencil and paper. A shared to-do list, with sections for each headteacher and a third for either, lives in the desk drawer. Shared accountability is a blessing, they say. Other teachers take work worries home to partners, but even those prepared to listen at length cannot bring the depth of understanding of someone doing the same job on different days of the week.

"That's a huge benefit," says Mrs Billingham. "Another is that someone else can see how much work you're doing. So much of a headteacher's job goes unseen, even by teachers in the same school."

The job-share at Comrie had its origins in Mrs Billingham's desire to combine career and family, after being the sole head there for three years. "I took maternity leave and decided during that time that I wanted to look after my son as much as I could. So my husband, who's with a scientific equipment company, arranged to work four days a week and take Mondays off. My son could go to nursery on the Tuesday, and the rest of the week I would care for him, while someone else could do this job. That was what we wanted.

"I didn't expect it to happen. When I suggested it to Perth and Kinross, they said no heads in Scotland had done it, but I had the same rights to flexible working arrangements as any other council employee. So they advertised for a job-share headteacher."

Meanwhile, Mrs Lowson had been a class teacher and then a headteacher in Perth and Kinross. "I'd given that up for family reasons, and taken a part-time teaching job a couple of years earlier. My circumstances changed and I applied for this job (Wednesday to Friday).

"I feel strongly that people should be able to job-share if they have young children. I still remember asking for it when I had mine in 1989. They told me job sharing just didn't happen in teaching."

Two sets of skills and interests mean the headteachers are constantly learning from one another. "We make each other think," says Mrs Lowson.

This benefits the school, as does the fact that job-share brains and bodies are fresher. "There's no feeling of winding down at the end of the week," says Mrs Billingham. "I don't think either of us could keep this pace up for five days. Don't get me wrong. I worked hard when I was full- time. But it's just physically easier to go flat-out for two or three days than for five. It means the whole is more than the sum of the parts."

This is true of most job-shares, including class teachers, Mrs Lowson believes. "A school benefits from two sets of ideas and perspectives, and from two people who are still working energetically at the end of the week."

The partners in this arranged marriage have put a lot of effort into it, they say, and friction has been very infrequent.

"A handful of times in two-and-a-half years, one of us has been frustrated by something the other has said or done," says Mrs Lowson. "You pick up on it quickly - even on the phone - and clear the air. You can't afford to bottle things up."

The one big concern Mrs Lowson had, she says, was in sharing a school with someone who had already been headteacher there. "I remember one head saying to me that she couldn't share her school with anyone else. It worried me.

"So the first couple of times I wanted to suggest a change, I thought very carefully, because it might have been something Ruth had instigated. That feeling didn't last, because Ruth soon made it clear that she didn't see it as her school."

It wouldn't have worked if she had done, says Mrs Billingham. "I had to step back and allow Fiona to find her feet. Comrie Primary is not my school now. It's not even our school. It belongs to staff, pupils and parents, and to us. It's everybody's school."


Anne Lemon, principal teacher at Comrie Primary

"I'm in school every day and have been PT here since 2004, so in the early days I was the glue.

"But Ruth and Fiona soon worked out ways to communicate well. I am still involved in discussions. I like the arrangement. I'm learning from two sets of skills.

"There are no serious complaints from staff. With a foot in both camps, I would know if teachers weren't happy. The school is getting two for the price of one."

Teresa Milsom, chair of the parent council

"Parents had some concerns at the start. We'd had two different heads, one after the other, when Ruth was on maternity. So we were keen to get continuity and stability for our children. We didn't know Fiona then, but everyone was pleased Ruth was coming back. We had children too, and wanted to support her in having both kids and a job."

William Milsom (P4)

"The only problem is you sometimes don't know who the headteacher is on any day of the week. Monday and Friday I do know. But Wednesday . let me think."

Jamie Penker (P6)

"I've had several heads here. This is a good arrangement. The heads have different personalities. If I'm tired, I sometimes forget which one it is, but usually I know. We see them around the school just about every day."

Callum McWilliams (P6)

"I like the arrangement, too. It means you have two people to turn to. You don't just go to a headteacher for serious things. You also go to her when you've done something really good."

Sheena Devlin, head of early years and primary education, Perth and Kinross

"A sharing arrangement more common than the Comrie model - and likely to become even more so - is one head among several schools. We piloted that elsewhere at the same time as this one at Comrie.

"What they have in common is that both need a great deal of consultation to make sure you've got it right and are addressing parents' and teachers' concerns.

"Communication and consistency of approach were the main issues raised. Parents didn't want to be told, `The other head deals with that - come back on Tuesday'.

"Evaluation of the Comrie job-share, which was made permanent after a short trial period, is ongoing - within the school and as part of the authority's school improvement framework. We are keen to keep good quality people in the right kind of job.

"My experience of job-shares is that if the two people understand the expectations and really want to make it work, it does. It's not two heads we have now at Comrie. It's one head post with two people filling it. We have shown that it can be done."

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