Hang in the balance

How many funambulists can you name? Philippe Petit perhaps or Jean-François Gravelet aka “The Great Blondin”?

Think a little more and you’ll realise that you work with high-wire walkers who perform delicate actions and achieve the impossible every day.

The pivotal role of deputy and assistant heads and vice principals doesn’t go unnoticed even though many of these lynchpin leaders would vehemently say otherwise. These all-rounders work at the beating heart of school leadership and keep the cogs of schools turning.

In her speech at the Festival of Education in June this year, Amanda Spielman acknowledged that although Heads do matter, schools clearly aren’t transformed by just one individual. Crusading leaders who can walk on water and wear their pants on the outside always have a strong management team around them paddling furiously underneath. The Ofsted chief said that the work of the whole team was important and schools “are transformed when these teams work well together, make use of everyone’s strengths and build robust processes.”

The true value of management and a strong organisational structure cannot be underestimated and something the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) is acutely aware of.

Pulled in all directions

In their report The Balancing Act, the NAHT asked deputy and assistant head and vice principals about the balance of their teaching and leadership responsibilities including their career aspirations.

The report exposes the magnitude of the workload teachers in these key roles have to juggle and how their teaching duties often conflict with their onerous and wide-ranging leadership responsibilities. The report also highlights the damaging effect heavy workloads and the government’s punishing rigid accountability framework is having on ambitions to become a head teacher.

From 849 responses, the key findings were that:

– 4 in 10 deputies and assistants surveyed work more than 60 hours a week.
– 88% teach in the classroom as part of their role, with 6 in 10 primary deputies and assistants teaching for more than half their time.
– The majority had additional responsibilities and 61% were the designated person for child protection.
– Almost 50% of respondents said they were called away from the classroom once a week or more to cover for the head in unforeseen circumstances with 1 in 10 reporting this happened once a day.
– 57% said the amount of time they had to spend away from their day-to-day teaching had risen, meaning children were left with higher level teaching assistants, supply teachers and teacher colleagues.
– Over 8 out of 10 leaders who reported they had to abandon their classes to deal with leadership duties said that it had “a negative impact on learning”.
– 2/3 of respondents were either unsure about or definitely not interested in aspiring to headship in future – not exactly a vibrant healthy pipeline.

Strike a balance

Management teams are crucial to the success of any organisation and schools flourish when there is a well-functioning group of professionals collaborating and working in unison. But these are tough old jobs with a lot of crockery to spin, lots of fire-fighting, plenty of fixing things and stacks of intermediary interventions and problems to deal with.

Clearly deputy and assistant heads, and vice principals are class acts who understand the infrastructure, tensions and vibrations of their schools but there are limits.

The Balancing Act report says strangling budget pressures and the pace of change in schools means leaders are trying to shepherd teaching and management responsibilities and there is insufficient funding for, or protection of, leadership time.

The report also throws down the gauntlet and raises the question of whether heads themselves can be doing more to help, cultivate, guide and bring on the next generation of school leaders.

Support must precede accountability and as Immediate Past President of the NAHT, Kim Johnson says, the challenge is for head teachers to look at the workload of their deputy and assistant heads and ask “what are the best practice models we need to put in place that will enable you to do the various parts of your job better?”

The culture of a school can’t be left to chance which is why heads need to make time for pastoral leadership. Kim advocates giving leaders 2 half days off per term away from school so they can breathe, “take stock, reflect and catch-up” as well as having regular keep-in-touch meetings to review work and offer guidance and support.

A healthy school culture is a community of problem-solvers but this can’t happen without strategic input from a transformational head teacher to drive high will and nurture professional skill through a system of support and nurturing, followed by accountability.

Get the work-work balance right and we might just give our work-life balance a fighting chance too.


John DabelJohn is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, national in-service provider, project manager, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books and contributed well over 1,000 articles, features, reviews and curriculum projects to various bodies, magazines, journals and institutions. John is Eteach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru – sharing monthly insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.




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