Two heads better than one?
Auldhouse Primary sits about 10 miles west of Hamilton. It serves a village and rural catchment area. It has 34 pupils in two classes. It has three class teachers (two job share) and two headteachers.
Many AHDS members have experience of teachers or other staff on part-time contracts or job share arrangements but the examples of job-sharing head teachers are few and far between. This article takes a look at the arrangement in Auldhouse and tries to answer the question – are two heads really better than one?
Janet McEwan and Liz Mockus have shared the Auldhouse headship since January 2009. Janet had been in the role for sixteen years. She had reached normal retirement age but was not ready to retire. At about the same time she had a change in personal circumstances which coincided with South Lanarkshire Council promoting the need for work/life balance. Janet enquired about reducing her hours, the Council agreed and soon a job-share post was advertised.
Liz was, and still is, a depute in nearby Kirktonholme Primary who was keen to gain more experience of headship and to experience life outside the large-school environment she had known for all of her school career. Liz highlighted the excellent support she had received from Sandra Mackenzie, Head Teacher at Kirktonholme, which had made the whole experience possible.
Janet works on Monday and Tuesday each week while Liz starts each week in Kirktonholme as a depute and from Wednesday to Friday she is the head in Auldhouse. Both heads are complimentary about one another and their respective contributions to the running of the school. After an initial period where Liz felt the need to check with things with Janet they quickly settled into a relationship of equals.
The heads recognise that they have a similar approach and ethos which has very much oiled the wheels of this arrangement. Indeed both made very clear that if they did not share the same vision and values then their roles as leaders would not enable them to provide the best they could for the children at the school and community.
It would be fair to say that if you added together the amount work done by Janet and Liz it would equal more than a normal Headteacher. The reasons for this are fairly obvious but are worth rehearsing nonetheless. In addition to a shared ethos the HTs are absolutely clear that organisation and communication are key success criteria. A lot of work was done before the arrangement started to make sure that there was clarity about who would do what, who would attend which meetings and so on. Despite the separation of some elements of the job it is crucial that both have a full understanding of what has happened during the other’s shift. The sharing of information is essential – reading the same paperwork, making records of what has happened and reading up on what the other has done, etc. In addition to the ‘paper’ side of the relationship the HTs meet face to face once a fortnight to run through more significant issues. On top of all that there is the telephone or text whenever is required. Without this shared approach to communication both HTs feel that cracks would have started to show very early on.
When asked to describe the best bit about the arrangement Janet particularly valued the opportunity of professional support and dialogue with another promoted member of staff – not something she had experienced in school during her 16 years at Auldhouse. For Liz the whole experience has been one of growth. Until taking up the role at Auldhouse she had only worked in large schools. Having had the opportunity to experience a small school and to properly experience headship she has learned a great deal and is much clearer about where she sees her career progressing from here on.
What do pupils, parents and teachers make of it? The message from both heads was that this has been a very positive and pro-active arrangement. Liz explained that the pupils are well behaved, confident and quite independent, perhaps due to the fact they are in a smaller school, and as a result they adjusted quickly to her arrival. Again, Liz and Janet’s shared vision and ethos was important in ensuring that there was little upheaval for pupils. Parents and staff also adjusted well to the new arrangements but to smooth the process further Liz suggested that if she had the opportunity to start again now she would have proposed open evenings for pupils, parents and all staff so that everyone had the opportunity to hear about the arrangement and to ask any questions. She feels this would have accelerated the ‘getting to know you’ phase which took place over the first six months.
Janet will be retiring at Christmas and the arrangement will come to an end. Both heads are still very positive about the experience. Liz commented that it had been a pleasure to work with Janet and she would happily do it again.
So is it true that two heads are better than one? The answer…well, that depends!
Liz and Janet regularly stressed the importance of their shared ethos (partly a product of coming from the same learning community), approach and commitment to effective communication. These are the essential building blocks to success.
That said, the message is clear – it can be done. If you are nearing the end of your career and would like to reduce your hours or if you are keen to experience headship you may wish to consider this as part of your professional development review. This experience shows that it can be good for a school, good for professional development and good for retaining experience and expertise which might otherwise disappear.