Co-headships could hold the key to getting more women into school leadership, according to campaigners.
They say that the arrangement – whereby two headteachers share the leadership of a single school – can make the prospect of headship more attractive to women by offering them greater flexibility with family life and more professional support.
Sian Carr, vice-president of the ASCL teachers’ union, said: “We need to bring co-headship to the fore. It has many advantages.”
Ms Carr, headteacher of The Skinners’ Kent Academy in Tunbridge Wells, will be the keynote speaker at a summit next month where school leaders, academics and governors will come together to discuss ways to counter the gender imbalance in school leadership.
For decades, the proportion of female school leaders has fallen short of the proportion of women teaching in classrooms.
The latest government figures show that in all English state schools, 74 per cent of teachers are women but only 65 per cent are heads. Job-sharing a school headship has never been common, especially in secondaries. But as a leadership recruitment crisis bites, it is thought that the opportunity to share the responsibilities involved in heading a school could make the demanding role more attractive for women previously put off by its all-consuming nature. “Some heads could share the week out between them so they can still have time to look after their families,” Ms Carr told TES. “It also gives people the opportunity to step up and be coached until they are ready [to take over a full-time headship].”
Ms Carr, who is also the incoming ASCL president, believes that there are real barriers in place for women wishing to progress to leadership – including career breaks – as well as perceived barriers, such as a lack of self-belief and confidence in their ability. “I think it is hard for senior leaders to think they can do the job because it is highly accountable,” she said. “But the truth is that women leaders are more than capable.”
One female headteacher at a secondary school in the North East, who wished to remain anonymous, told TES that she had considered headship only because her leaders believed in her.
“As a woman, I always felt like I had to wait until I had done everything I could, until I applied to the next stage,” she said. “But if you have someone believing in you, saying, ‘We think you have what it takes,’ then it gives you the confidence and push to go to the next level.”
Ms Carr said: “We need to start early and we need to be talent-spotting, nurturing them and offering opportunities. We should also be offering internships alongside female heads.”
Talented Leaders is a government-funded programme which aims to spot exceptional talent so that the best candidates for headship – regardless of gender or race – can be deployed to lead the schools that really need them.
The scheme is already helping to close the gender gap; women make up more than half (55 per cent) of its latest cohort.
But despite this rising interest in headship from women, some leaders believe that schools’ governing bodies can still be prone to unconscious bias in favour of men.
One graduate of Talented Leaders, who wished to remain anonymous, told TES that she had encountered difficulty securing a headship through the normal recruitment process because of bias.
The new head, who was placed in a West Yorkshire school, had wanted to be a leader since the age of 6.
“In one interview, one of the members of the panel asked whether I would be able to do the job because I had children,” she said. “You have to overcome that bias and believe in yourself.” For change to occur, governing bodies need to get on board with the need to tackle gender imbalance, according to Ms Carr.
“We need to engage governors from the beginning; they need to be at the heart of any programme or campaign,” she said.
Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governors’ Association (NGA), backed the co-headship model, and said that school governors must be more flexible if they are to recruit good leaders.
“The co-head model can be a useful way to provide a different working arrangement,” Ms Knights, who will be a panellist at the summit, said. “As a woman whose first executive post was a job-share, I can recommend this to candidates as well as governing boards.”
l Leading Women to Headship – The Summit will be held on Friday 15 January. To find out more, visit bit.ly/headshipsummit
One head becomes two
Liz Robinson used to be the sole head of Surrey Square Primary, in Southwark, South London, but decided to look into a job-share after having her first child.
She approached her deputy, Nicola Noble, with the idea, and the pair have enjoyed a successful co-headship for more than two years.
“It’s a really inspiring model and it’s very empowering for women at this stage of their lives,” Ms Robinson said.
“Nicola wouldn’t have gone into headship at this time of her life; the pressure of doing the job on her own, with very young children, would have been too much. Her career would have slowed down.”
Both heads work four days a week at the primary, leaving them with a spare day each week to see their children. “It has given me the opportunity to do other things outside of the school without feeling guilty about leaving it all with the deputy,” Ms Robinson added. “I can be mummy and not be on call for one day a week.”
‘More research is needed’
A number of speakers at the Leading Women to Headship summit will draw on research evidence on leaders’ experiences – but there is a lack of statistics and data on co-headships.
To rectify this, more research needs to be carried out to explore the model of co-headships, one academic believes.
Dr Karen Edge, of the UCL Institute of Education, said: “If we are serious about co-headship, then we need to understand more. As a proposition, it is gaining momentum but it will require some work on how do to it.
“We need to find models of how it has worked and examples where it has worked for both governing bodies and schools. Salary parity, for example, would need to be explored.”
The academic believes that it is the right time to raise the profile of co-headships. “English schools at the moment don’t support work-life balance and alternative structures,” she said.
“Many are still bound to tradition. We are not thinking about job shares, co-headships and internships – but we should.”