Two heads better...

24th June 2005 at 01:00
Job shared is a problem halved for two infant school heads. Emma Burns reports on their model for flexible working

One of the main problems of headship is that it is a lot of work. It's stressful - sometimes very stressful. It has scary moments and it can be lonely. You can't moan to colleagues unless you want to undermine your position and even the most willing spouse can't listen night after night without becoming prone to selective deafness.

Yet there's one simple solution that overcomes all these difficulties and puts the fun back: job-sharing. That, at least, is the view of Jacqui Newton and Sally Clarke who are, the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) believes, the first existing job-share in England to be promoted to a headship. At the other 20 or so schools in the country with job-share heads, the partnership began at that level, rather than two people rising through the ranks together.

Jacqui and Sally started job-sharing nine years ago - they each do half the week, swapping over at Wednesday lunchtime. And they find the benefits of dividing the workload and preserving time for their families even more pronounced now that they are leading their school.

"We bring more energy than one person could," says Sally, "lots of ideas because we spark off each other, different skills - I am probably more practical, whereas Jacqui is probably better at negotiating with people - and we can give each other support.

"There are things I can say to Jacqui that I couldn't say to anyone else.

If as a head you were to break down or rant and rave in front of a deputy, you would lose face. As co-headteachers we are equally responsible, equally fascinated and equally absorbed by the school. In fact, we try to communicate mostly by email because if we phone each other we talk for too long. I would say the school gets 75 per cent from each of us."

Jacqui adds: "We are fortunate that we are in a financial position to do this. There's so much pressure on headteachers - it is hard to sustain that intensity for years and years.We had work-life balance before the phrase was even mentioned.

"Job-sharing is a way for women, who are generally so under-represented at the top, to be able to get ahead. Mothers come up to me in the playground and say how great they think it is."

Jacqui, 43, and Sally, 40, first shared the job of key stage 1 co-ordinator at Heathfield primary in Nottingham in 1996, before managerial posts were generally open to job-shares.

Six years later, they became co-deputy heads at Seely infant and nursery school also in Nottingham. It has 126 pupils plus a 40-place nursery. Last September, when the head retired, they became co-acting heads and were appointed as joint heads from November 1.

Jacqui and Sally are contributing to a consultation by the National College for School Leadership to explore flexible working practices prompted at least in part by the problem of recruiting and keeping staff. Forty-five per cent of heads, deputies and assistant heads in England are over 50, and only 20 per cent under 30. If there is not to be a gaping hole at the top soon, more younger people need to be promoted. But younger staff tend to be those raising their own families, the sort of people who shy away from the extra burden of headship.

"We want to boost the confidence of the profession to adopt flexible working practices," says Geoff Southworth, director of research at NCSL.

"This will help increase the pool of people who will consider putting themselves forward for selection for headships. Flexible ways of working is one of a number of solutions the profession can adopt to address headteacher shortages."

For both women, the trigger for job-sharing was having children. "We talked about it after Jacqui had her first child, and after that we alternated maternity leave for her second and third children and my first and second," says Sally.

For the first few years, they even shared a childminder. "The children had an overlap day too when they played together and while we did our handover.

It worked fantastically," says Sally.

At that stage Sally was a classroom teacher and Jacqui, as key stage 1 co-ordinator, was her manager. For the arrangement to be approved by the head and governors, Sally had to win promotion. Happily, she did - and for almost a decade the job-share has worked so successfully that neither would now consider returning full-time.

Jacqui says: "Why should your career be limited because you only want to work part-time? This way there is less absence, more flexibility, and when you are in you can give it your all."

Part of the reason for their success is that Jacqui and Sally are meticulously organised and great at communicating. There is a comprehensive diary in school where everyone's appointments are noted: particularly important because half the teaching and classroom assistant posts at Seely are filled by job-shares. The two heads have a personal diary in which they note day-to-day events and messages. There is a file where all communication with parents is recorded.

They both attend full governors' meetings and training sessions and meetings with other local headteachers as necessary.They are both taking the National Professional Qualification for Headship and they have joint performance management targets.

Staff meetings are held at either end of the week to fit in with the different job-shares, and once a month on Wednesdays, when everyone attends.

"Nowadays I don't think staff would be able to tell you which of us took a staff meeting or dealt with a situation because it is so seamless between us," says Sally. "Sometimes we do have different views of things, but then we talk it over until we reach a compromise."

Jacqui feels theirs is a model that could relieve the pressure on managers in many different fields. "So many jobs are difficult and stressful," she says, "so this could be a way of holding on to people. If they were working full-time, they might become ill or burned out and need to take early retirement. Job-shares have got to be the way of the future."

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