Co-headship: sharing the pressure and building system leadership

Kike Agunbiade, Senior Education Lead, writes…

On 17 December I sacrificed attending the SSAT staff Christmas do, to go back to my old employer Teach First for a day of ‘ideation’ as part of the ‘What will it take?’ summit on the headteacher recruitment crisis.

The mix of delegates for the day included a number of Teach First staff, some current teachers and headteachers (both TF Ambassadors and others) and representatives from education organisations including Future Leaders, Teaching Leaders, Place2Be, Teach for All, ThinkAhead, Future Frontiers, and obviously SSAT in the guise of me.

The facilitator took us through a standard innovation process: understanding the problem, generating solutions, developing the solutions, then narrowing down and honing the best ones followed by testing them in a dragons’ den-esque exercise.

We divided the problem into four interlinked aspects:

  • size of the pool of people who want to become heads
  • recruitment and selection of heads
  • the impact of accountability pressures
  • quality of training and development.

Of all the ideas that were generated the one I believe to be most promising requires a massive mindset shift in terms of our commonly accepted notions of leadership. That’s what I want to focus on in this blog.

WWIT summit with credit

That idea is co-headship

There are a few trailblazers who are doing this successfully already. In fact, SSAT has highlighted this practice in a number of member schools, including Batley Girls’ High School and Charters School, which were featured in our journal for Leading Change.

Similarly, both the Guardian and TES have written pieces about co-headship in individual schools and there is some further limited research here.

The model I’m most interested in is full co-headship. This is where one school has two headteachers who are paid on an equal basis (whether full time or part time with some overlap) and who are jointly and equally responsible for the school and where the arrangement is intentional – that is, part of a strategic move with governing body support.

This is not to say that co-headship as part of a phased retirement or interim joint stepping up of deputies to cover interim periods are not great ideas. Indeed I think they are, but I would argue they are sticking plasters rather than long term solutions.

Despite the few proponents of the model highlighted in the examples above being very positive it hasn’t taken off as common practice. Of the 174 headteacher vacancies listed on TES as I write, not a single one mentions joint or co-headship, and they are all listed as full time permanent positions.

Co-headship model might mitigate some of the factors that are cited as putting people off headship

As acknowledgement of the looming headteacher recruitment crisis grows, it is worth considering how the co-headship model might mitigate some of the factors that are cited as putting people off headship:

  • Stress and work-life balance: co-headship can give greater flexibility for heads, whether to prepare for system leadership, to look after family or to engage in other activities. Perhaps more importantly, a model of co-headship can reduce the stress and mental illness for heads, stopping it from being a ‘superhero’ job where one is required to work all hours to be successful.
  • Accountability pressures: many potential heads are scared of the risk of taking on headship in case of a poor Ofsted judgement. Indeed, I remember one head telling Mr Gove and Mr Wilshaw at an ASCL conference a few years ago that, given the system they had created, taking on headship at a school in challenging circumstances was career suicide. It is lonely at the top of most organisations; but many other professional fields have structures to share the load, such as partnerships within accountancy or law.
  • Skill set required is too wide ranging: the role of a head now is arguably an impossible one to do well. Since the introduction of local management of schools as part of the 1988 Education Action the expectation that heads are leaders of instructional, pastoral, operational and financial matters in their organisations requires a knowledge and skill set that is incredibly broad. There has been limited experimentation with non-teachers becoming heads It seems that some of the pitfalls could be avoided by bringing in skill sets from other industries and putting organisational management on a par with instructional and pastoral leadership, unlike the much varied but generally lower position of business manager.

Making leadership activity visible, modelling diversity and preparing for complexity can all offer system-wide benefits

Beyond mitigating the perceived negatives of becoming a head, there is potential for the co-headship model to create some system-wide benefits, such as:

  • Making leadership activity visible: if we need to build the decisional capital of our teachers, as proposed by Hargreaves and Fullan among others, then having the people making the biggest decisions discussing them openly makes the decision-making process much clearer – both to them and potentially to others. You might argue that some heads do this with their chair of governors or SLT, but ultimately they have to make the decision by themselves in most cases.
  • Role modelling diversity: many teachers’ ideas of what being a headteacher looks like are determined by the style of their current headteacher. First impressions count, especially early in one’s career. Being exposed to different styles of headship demonstrated by a diverse range of heads cannot hurt in encouraging a wider range of young teachers to aspire to leadership, thus growing the next generation of school leaders. As LKMCo’s report into the London leadership pool highlights, perceived professional satisfaction is a key factor in deputy headteachers’ desire to become heads. If co-headship can enable more time to be involved with young people rather than just chasing accountability and administrative goals, it could make a difference in supporting aspiring headteachers to see headship as a positive experience, and one that isn’t so big a leap from senior leadership.
  • Preparation for complexity of a school-led system: as the school system evolves to become more complex, with a confused and fragmented middle tier, the expectations of how headteachers work with other schools and agencies also become more complex. I would argue this requires greater skills of negotiation, influencing and collaboration. What better preparation for system leadership than co-headship, in which one cannot so readily revert to command-and-control tactics when under pressure?

And so to the practicalities

Funding is probably the biggest barrier. As some of the cited examples show, there are innovative ways of doing it, such as both heads being paid half deputy salary and half head salary and operating without a deputy.

However, the potential additional costs of co-headship may be worth paying, when the alternative might be appointing a head who won’t be able to sustain themselves over the long-term; or having to go through many rounds of recruitment to find someone of the quality and breadth to steer the whole ship.

Breaking the mould, and supporting governors to be brave financially, will always be tricky in the current accountability climate. But the status quo is not good enough for school leaders, our children or their communities. So perhaps, when the time comes, advertising for co-heads is worth the risk.

Navigating the practical barriers to implanting such a model is going to be difficult, and more research and development is definitely required. I would like to see more investment in investigating how this could be workable.

I hope that many of the individuals and organisations represented at the ‘What will it take?’ summit will explore, promote and develop the idea.

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