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Co-headship: a new level of cooperative, distributed leadership

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Achievement Show Preview: tasters of what you can look forward to

We are delighted to introduce our Achievement Show Preview: tasters of what you can look forward to series. During the series, you will hear from practitioners and leaders who are presenting at this year’s Achievement Show – giving you a preview of what to expect from their presentations.


Zone: Inspiring Schools
Presentation: Co-headship – a powerful model of school leadership
School: Batley Girls’ High School
Presenters: Ann McCall and Julie Haigh, Co-Headteachers

Ann McCall and Julie Haigh, co-heads of Batley Girls’ High School in Yorkshire, have prepared a powerful presentation for the Achievement Show about the benefits of co-headship.

They have clearly and openly addressed the challenges as well as the vital personal factors that have driven their success in building an extraordinarily collaborative culture in their school.

The vast majority of staff report their approach to their jobs, teams and school as ‘heartfelt commitment’ and ‘creative excitement’.


Ann and Julie have worked officially as co-heads since September last year, but had been progressively adopting these roles for the previous two years, during which the school’s executive head had worked part time before she retired.

They had built a sustainable distributed leadership in the school, which gave Ann and Julie the opportunity to take leadership roles in her absence. ‘We were already very much part of the school leadership,’ says Julie. ‘When Ofsted was here we were included in all the headteacher discussion meetings.’

Ann adds: ‘It was a clear succession strategy – but we had to show we could do it. It was almost a training period.’

When Ofsted was here we were included in all the headteacher discussion meetings

Benefits and opportunities
One of the biggest benefits, they believe, is ‘the far more considered judgement we can provide because we have to be reflective in working with each other,’ as Ann puts it.

This was confirmed by the report of an Ofsted visit in March this year, in which the leadership model was described as ‘visionary, analytical and truly reflective’.

Julie enthuses: ‘sharing responsibility has been an incredibly positive experience. We really enjoy working together. Headship can be very lonely, but working together we’re more confident. And we are definitely good value for money!’

We really enjoy working together. Headship can be very lonely, but working together we’re more confident

In terms of role distinction, Julie leads on achievement and accountability; Ann on teaching and learning. Each has links to a ‘super faculty’: maths and English (Julie) and arts, humanities and languages (Ann). They both still teach.

Challenges, and how they respond
As a school, the challenge was to maintain the ‘outstanding in all four areas,’ awarded by Ofsted in 2013.

As co-heads, the challenges were very much down to effectively combining their different attitudes, approaches and skillsets and presenting a united front, even when they sometimes privately disagree.

Early on, before the co-headship was formalised, they report that they were sometimes ‘lobbied’ by staff they worked with, to apply individually for headship.

Once decided on the joint route they were careful to promote, not just the partnership, but the other candidate, and decided that their loyalties would always be first to each other; and their disagreements would be private.

Even now, says Ann, the school’s leadership team tell them ‘they have no idea if/when we have disagreed about something!’ But she adds: ‘Our differences are part of our strength. We understand each other well – I won’t say we’re morphing into each other!’

They [Ann and Julie] decided that their loyalties would always be first to each other; and their disagreements would be private

Julie explains the mechanism: ‘we carried out a 360-degree appraisal on each other. Ann likes to be well organised in advance, while I tend to thrive on last-minute planning. But by working together we have learned a lot.’

Inevitably with the top management position in the school split between two people, there are times when some colleagues attempt to play one off against the other.

This has been rare at Batley Girls’, because Julie and Ann addressed the issue openly with staff right at the start.

They spelt out which aspects were the responsibility of one or the other of them, and which would be joint decisions. In the latter case, says Ann, ‘we never decide without consulting each other.’

They [Ann and Julie] spelt out which aspects were the responsibility of one or the other of them, and which would be joint decisions

To make sure they are well co-ordinated at all times, Ann and Julie meet every morning before school starts ‘so we can catch up.’

They have applied their own experience of building constructive professional relationships to the rest of the staff. A previous culture of empire building and ‘fighting your own corner’ has been replaced by ‘genuine mutual accountability, mutual responsibility,’ says Julie.

Deep reflective practice
Working with curriculum leaders, the co-heads talk to them about their frustrations, saying: ‘you’re the experts – what would work, what would raise attainment?’ ‘Then we do something about it. It’s not just lip service.’

They realised the curriculum leaders really did need more time (a major concern expressed by staff), so after a full discussion the co-heads enabled curriculum leaders to have an extra two periods a week, to spend time with their colleagues, and reduced the number of meetings concerned with functional and business aspects.

After a full discussion the co-heads enabled curriculum leaders to have an extra two periods a week, to spend time with their colleagues

Distributed leadership requires humility too
Ann and Julie examined international research into leadership styles. Some American research into sustainable excellence in business was very helpful, and showed that different kinds of headship are suited to schools at different stages.

One of the messages was: ‘when the team holds collective accountability and is rewarded collectively, that elicits total commitment to accountability from all individuals.’

Some American research into sustainable excellence in business was very helpful, and showed that different kinds of headship are suited to schools at different stages

They adopted a Venn diagram of three key ideas: mutual accountability, humility and distributed leadership.

Ann explains the importance of this for Batley Girls’: ‘the shift from the previous headship to our model mainly focused on humility. The previous head was charismatic; Julie and I are different. Neither of us seeks the limelight and we’re happy to work really hard behind the scenes.

Our focus is not that we know it all but on collaborative problem solving. We value our colleagues as experts.’

The conclusions of their co-headship after the first 9 months has been ‘incredibly positive,’ says Ann. They have illustrated their vision and ambitions with staff with a model showing various levels of culture and ethos in an organisation, from ‘rebel or quit’ at one end to ‘heartfelt commitment’ and finally ‘creative excitement’ at the other.

They [Ann and Julie] have illustrated their vision and ambitions with staff with a model showing various levels of culture and ethos in an organisation

They asked colleagues to rate themselves, their teams and the school against this scale (their presentation will include relevant resources). The vast majority put themselves and the school at the top end of this scale.

‘We find now that people are more concerned about their roles and titles, and what they do in their work, than what they are paid’, says Ann.

The co-heads believe the benefits of this model are profound, particularly in a climate of change and challenges with recruitment. Their ‘dynamic culture’, rather than a fixed leadership model, enables a consistent strategy and vision that is shared across the organisation.

Significantly, Batley Girls’ High School has been awarded Investors in People – Gold for the second time.


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