Yes, the head can be in two places at once

17th April 1998 at 01:00
Julie Morrice reports on a pilot project in the Borders which may show the way forward for small schools with over-stressed headteachers

Alistair Wilson's spartan office in Broughton primary in the Borders looks out north-west on to a sheep-studded hillside. His spartan office in Newlands primary looks south-east on to a sheep-free hillside. Identical files run along the wall of each.

Wilson is not a man to make outrageous claims, but it seems that his job as headteacher of both schools is going well. On secondment from Morebattle primary, where he was a teaching head, he now appreciates being able to organise his time more efficiently, and is enthusiastic about having the opportunity to concentrate on curriculum and staff development.

Organisation is the keynote of his regime. "You need to keep a very good diary," he says, holding up a desk model with every day neatly ruled in half by a red line.

In the six months since he took on the job, he has had only one or two lapses. Once he arranged to meet a company rep at one school when he was at the other, and on one "horrendous" day he made the journey between the two six times.

Normally, he makes the 10-minute drive along the A701 just once a day, at lunchtime, sweeping out of Broughton's long, low building to arrive at compact, pink-stone Newlands.

"It has been important for me to have a presence in each school every day. Up to now there has hardly been a day when a parent couldn't catch me in their school."

Now that parents and teachers are more confident with the project, Wilson plans to spend entire working days at one or other of the schools so that he can get "a long sweep" at projects rather than having every day split. Broughton and Newlands are quite alike: both with pupils coming from a wide, rural catchment area, both with a friendly atmosphere and involved parents, both of a similar size.

Wilson is clear that he must be seen to share his time equally between the schools, and points out that shared management between schools of different sizes or with widely differing demands would raise problems.

"Parents want to know that their children's school is getting a fair deal, and the whole thing might be a non-starter if parents felt a smaller school was getting a raw deal," he said.

While the similarities between the schools are important, so are the differences. "It has to be remembered that they are two separate schools, each with its own ethos," he says.

Wilson has found opportunities for getting two tasks done at once: "I was able to progress language planning and maths planning in both schools concurrently, but as soon as you involve the staff, different ideas come in and each school develops its own plan. I don't impose my ideas. You can't go in and change everything and upset everybody."

He finds working with two schools can be refreshing. "You know there are going to be different staff, different children, different outlooks. It's good for bouncing ideas off people." He is less enthusiastic about the increase in his evening commitments: with double the number of parents' evenings, PTA meetings, the inaugural meeting of the Broughton school board, fundraising evenings, it is a heavy load.

Teachers at both 88-pupil, four-teacher Broughton and 56-pupil, three-teacher Newlands are positive about the head-share.

Anne Hewitt, assistant head of Broughton, recalls Wilson's predecessor having to take a mobile phone into class with her, and suffering inevitable interruptions. "It takes a weight off the teachers that the administration is now being dealt with separately," she says.

Her opposite number at Newlands, Nancy Thomson, agrees. "Oh please don't go back to the old system," she pleads. The previous, teaching head, she says, did a tremendous job, but was under terrific pressure and felt she was barely coping with the workload.

Thomson, as the only long-serving teacher at Newlands (both her colleagues joined the staff at around the same time as Alistair Wilson), has had a busy six months while the new staff have got to know the school and vice versa, and clearly the assistant heads at both schools (promoted from senior teacher posts as part of the shared management project) play an important part in the smooth running of the system.

Thomson feels the secret of the project's success is good communication and the ability to plan well ahead. "If you can't rely on the head being available just when you want to talk to him, it's easy for days to pass and messages to go undelivered."

Alistair Wilson's answer to the problem has been to put a postbox in each staffroom. "As long as I can keep filling the boxes, and they keep looking in them, the information system should work."

Perhaps because Scottish Borders Council has ensured that consultation with staff and parents has been central to the project from the start, the BroughtonNewlands pilot has survived its first six months without major upset.

There was a brief hiccup last November when the Educational Institute of Scotland questioned its legality. But local representatives have been highly supportive and, according to the assistant director of education, Graeme Donald, assistant director of education for the Borders, the EIS nationally has now "gone a little quiet".

Donald is keen to stress that the project is not an exercise in money-saving or resources-cutting. "This is the result of a sincere concern for the pressures on heads. It is not a back-door route to amalgamation or closure of schools, and we have satisfied parents on that front."

Donald meets parents from the two schools each term to hear their thoughts on the change. It is difficult, he says, to separate the changes due to the shared management project from those which would occur with any change of head and teaching staff, but parents, he says, have shown "complete support" and are particularly pleased that all classes now have a full-time dedicated teacher.

Staff have also been supported throughout by schools advisers, and the project is being given a formal evaluation by a primary adviser doing her MEd at Moray House in Edinburgh.

"In my opinion, running more than one project would be helpful," Donald says, but the council remains cautious about similar schemes elsewhere. Set up as a 23-month project, the Broughton-Newlands pilot will be reassessed at Christmas.

Alistair Wilson's only reservation is that he has little classroom contact with the pupils of his two schools. "Initially I thought five days would be quite a lot for the management side. The question was how much teaching input could there be and still run the two schools. And it turns out that one day a week would be too much, and there may be less teaching than at first perceived."

Wilson does some French teaching at Newlands and hopes to be available to class teachers in each school for an hour or two a week, but is cautious about making a rigid timetable. The greedy maw of management takes a lot of feeding.

Nancy Thomson, of Newlands, is unfazed by the way in which the project seems to formalise the split between school management and school teaching. "That's the way teaching is going anyway," she says. She may be right.

Alistair Wilson's hope for the new session is that the council will arrange to link up his two computers at Broughton and Newlands, and perhaps even invest in video-conferencing technology, so that he can talk to staff "face to face" when he is 10 miles down the road. The paraphernalia of the boardroom comes to school. What price the virtual headteacher?

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