We are the captains of this ship

17th July 2015 at 01:00
Why running a school is plain sailing with co-headteachers

If you ask to see the headteacher at Woolwich Polytechnic School, you may find yourself in front of one of two people. You see, I share the job with my colleague, Byron Parker.

Introducing co-headship was a brave decision by the governing body. The idea initially was to ensure smooth succession if my co-headteacher ever decided to leave by providing a period of overlap with a successor - me. However, the model has become much more than a succession plan and has developed my leadership capacity far further than we originally planned.

To be clear, the system we operate is not a job share, it is the employment of two headteachers. I am full-time and Byron is part-time but we both take full responsibility. The governors researched various models before deciding which to follow. For us, the right choice was one in which the job could be shared in its entirety, not divided up into responsibilities or by time. Accountability is shared at all levels.

Two heads.

Our approach means that there is no junior partner and neither person has to wait on the other when a decision needs to be made. In this way, we get the decisiveness and clarity of the single-headteacher model combined with the additional capacity of the co-headteacher approach.

Obviously, colleagues need to know that our decisions would be the same - there can be no "playing off" of one against the other. Similarly, we always speak to staff with one voice; any disagreements or uncertainties are dealt with in private, either before or after. That said, it is rare for us to disagree - our pairing was harmonious right from the start. Our education outlooks are similar and our personalities are complementary enough to make it work.

And it works in ways I had not considered. Having a peer who understands the level of accountability the job entails and feels the same sense of ownership over it has been incredibly useful. In a way, it's the manifestation of the internal dialogue that all headteachers have in their private moments. Even better, it enables headteachers to get feedback they simply could not get from any other member of staff - it gives them access to a person who will always tell it like it is with no alternative agenda.

We have also found that co-headship is a great reminder of the need to focus on what is most important: student outcomes. All headteachers have egos but there is no place for massaging them in a school. Our job is to raise standards. Working in a partnership constantly reinforces the fact that the students come first and your career comes second. A co-headteacher is an ideal reality-checker - a face in the mirror who reminds you what's really important.

The model has been so successful that we have used it throughout the school. We currently operate a number of joint leaderships - co-heads of humanities, science and year groups, for example. We expect others to follow as and when appropriate, but pragmatism is the key and the model is used only when we are confident that it will provide the best outcomes.

Strength in numbers

This confidence comes when we see that the pairing is right, with both partners able to work as an exceptionally close unit. It is vital for the individuals to realise that they must not lose the skills and values that are unique to them - it is the strength of both people that ensures the strength of the partnership.

The impact of our co-headship is clear from the many improvements within the school over the past four years and from the fact that the arrangement has lasted so long. We have received an outstanding rating from the inspectorate Ofsted and achieved exceptional outcomes.

Notably, we have also been able to work with and lead other schools during this time. Our leadership capacity has allowed us to do this without any detriment to our own school's smooth running. And this, in turn, has given us a constant supply of new ideas and renewed our drive for success. This has culminated in the creation of our own multi-academy trust, which is now in the process of expansion.

The initial focus of our co-headship was on succession and securing short-term stability. In practice, the model has real sustainability as a long-term approach to raising standards.

Tim Plumb is co-headteacher at Woolwich Polytechnic School in London

What else?

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