Is that wise, Captain Mainwaring?;Opinion

24th December 1999 at 00:00
OUR depute head is now out of school each week on her modern languages training course and I miss her.

This is the beginning of 27 planned days of absence when I shall be deprived of her efforts and support. My concern is not due to having to take on some of her duties but because I have learnt that I work more effectively in a partnership, which is a remarkable turnaround for someone who worked for so long on his own that he once had difficulty learning to share responsibility.

The post of depute head in Scottish primary schools is a very recent one. It did not exist 10 years ago and does not exist yet in the majority of schools because their pupil roll is under 200. Yet some of the best research on school effectiveness shows the role of the depute head is an important factor in school success.

Peter Mortimore in Open Matters, his highly readable account of primary school effectiveness, states the clear value of involving the depute head in decision-making and planning as well as in the day-to-day organisation of the school, and this raises the question about whether denying this post to most schools in the Scottish system is denying a crucial factor in school success.

My delight at our school achieving its first depute head eight years ago failed to anticipate the early difficulties I would encounter. I had already been a teaching head and then a head with no other promoted member to consider. I welcomed a depute on the basis that I would have someone with whom I could share but, in practice, I found that more difficult than I expected.

It was easy to agree our job descriptions which were well thought-out and impressive on paper. The depute's responsibilities would include child protection, discipline, meeting parents and liaising with external agencies, all of which I had been doing for years.

The truth was that I found it hard to let go because, deep down, I thought that my ways were best. It took a number of false starts before I was able to step back, but it soon became clear that this did not bring the world to an end. Indeed, the real breakthrough came when I was able to admit that the depute was improving on my efforts and we were all benefiting.

I was the first winner. I was less stretched. I had gained a colleague who brought solutions rather than problems and who was able to use the immortal words of Sergeant Wilson: "Do you think that's wise, Captain Mainwaring?" My use of time improved because she was prepared to ask: "Are you sure you should be doing that? Is that the best way?"

As the depute and I worked more effectively in partnership, with genuine discussion and joint decisions, the influence spread within the school where teachers have become more confident in their teaching and more open in acknowledging their strengths and weaknesses. Above all,we know that it is vital to keep talking to one another in formal and informal situations.

One depute moved on and was replaced by another. She was able to take the partnership further to the extent that some European visitors displayed their excellent English and referred to us as "a good couple". The point was taken in the spirit it was meant.

The McCrone committee is currently examining the whole structure of staffing within Scottish schools. The best millennium present could well be the appointment of a depute head to every primary school. It's not fair to keep asking senior teachers and class teachers to take on a deputising role, without pay, when the headteacher is absent, but more important, the partnership between a head and depute could bring better efficiency, honesty and focus to a school.

Attainment can only improve as a result. Happy Christmas.

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