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Side by Side – How Co-Headship Can Work in Practice

September 24, 2019, 9:34 GMT+1
Read in 7 minutes
  • Paula Ayliffe and Sarah Stepney describe how they went about developing a successful system of co-headship
Side by Side – How Co-Headship Can Work in Practice

The previous headteacher of Mayfield Primary School, Jas Hill, retired in July 2018 after nearly 25 years in post.

Three years prior to that, one of us, Sarah Stepney, had arrived as a new deputy head, joining assistant head Paula Ayliffe. We shared an office, and soon realised that we both wanted the same things for Mayfield’s community. For the next four years, the three of us duly worked together on achieving our shared aims.

Both of us were aware of Jas’ plans to retire; she had confided in us both well in advance of informing the rest of the school. Over coffee one morning, one of us jokingly suggested to the other that we should do the job of headteacher together – but then instantly, we both exclaimed, ‘Yes, we should!’ At around the same time, the two of us were due to speak at a conference in Edinburgh alongside Jas, and we opted to extend the trip in order to properly consider a joint application.

Our advertisement for the headship of Mayfield went live the following January. We asked the governors whether they might consider a joint application, and were told they would prefer single applications – but that they would allow a joint presentation at the end of the interviews if we both successfully made it through to the final stages.

We ultimately did, and duly gave a joint presentation outlining our vision for Mayfield. Both of us had previously told the interview panel that we’d accept the job as individuals, but were secretly, desperately hoping they’d offer the job to both of us. And that’s exactly what they did.

Half and half

Contracts were subsequently drawn up which were unique. We were each to be half head and half deputy, making us both full time school staff. We started the job(s) in September 2018 and have just finished our first year. We’ve encountered many challenges along the way, but are both even more enthusiastic now for our shared roles than when we were first appointed. We thought we’d carefully divvy up the different aspects of the job, and to a certain extent we’ve been successful.

Sarah has a passion for the curriculum and learning environments, whilst Paula enjoys more the process of appraisal and overseeing the provision of CPD. In the main, however, it tends to be the case that whoever answers the phone or gets to an email first will then see the relevant task through to the end.

We start each morning by triaging emails and allocating the jobs for the day. This approach came about at the beginning almost by accident, but we quickly realised that it was a vital task. We use a shared email account, and initially ensured that we would always talk with each other whenever a decision needed to be made. However, we quickly came to realise that this arrangement wasn’t manageable in the long term. We now trust each other to make appropriate decisions at the times when they need to be made.

‘Too perky’

Like all headteachers, we find ourselves attending many different meetings. Early on, we detected high levels of anxiety among some members of staff, and saw that they would use these meetings with us to share various stresses and problems. We would hear comments that we were ‘too perky’ and that ‘it wouldn’t last’.

What both of us have realised since then is that we have each other – meetings. Early on, we detected high levels of anxiety among some members of staff, and saw that they would use these meetings with us to share various stresses and problems. We would hear comments that we were ‘too perky’ and that ‘it wouldn’t last’.

What both of us have realised since then is that we have each other – reception teacher, and continue to ask for her advice as if she were still spending much of her time in the Foundation Stage. Some then suddenly remember, and consider these questions as somehow not appropriate – but we reassure them that on the contrary, they’re entirely appropriate and encouraged them to continue.

Personal contact with our families is something that we both prioritise. Both of us also continue to maintain a presence in the classroom, each teaching approximately one day a week – something that will continue into next year as we strive to minimise costs. We were hopeful of recruiting an assistant head, but so far that’s not been possible. We have, however, elevated the status of our wonderful school business manager. She’s our financial expert, and therefore in the best position to manage and lead the fabric of the school.

As we look ahead to 2019-20 we have a clear plan; we know where we want to take the school. Surveys and interviews carried out by our governors have indicated that parents and staff are overwhelmingly with us.

One parent recently stopped Paula in the street and said, “You know, at first I thought this arrangement was ridiculous. You can’t run a country with two Prime Ministers – how on earth are you going to run a school? People are going to play one off against the other!

“But I was wrong. You two are the epitome of equitability! I can see the trust you have between you, and the trust that the parents and children have for you. The school is in very safe hands.”

We’ve also heard how a member of staff commented to one of our teachers, “It’s good having two heads – there’s always someone to talk to who can make a decision.”

So, after a very busy year, we’ve continued to be ‘perky’. We’ve started our journey together implementing outdoor learning – all classes spend an afternoon out of the classroom each week, whatever the weather – and the ‘Spiral of Inquiry’ model developed by Helen Timperley, Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert across the whole school. We remain absolutely determined to do the very best we can, side by side.

5 co-headship tips

1. Have a shared vision and ethos.

2. Trust each other, and agree that the outcomes of decisions – good or bad, whoever makes them – belong to both of you.

3. Share an email account and triage emails daily (but only once daily!)

4. Ensure that the school community sees you as a team that communicates well and shares all responsibilities.

5. Go for long walks together – they provide good opportunities to talk through plans and check that things are on track.

Paula Ayliffe and Sarah Stepney are coheadteachers at Mayfield Primary School, Cambridge

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