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The Role of the Deputy Head - The Green Paper and Beyond

Des Rutherford and Dee Dunne

School of Education, The University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Conference, Cardiff University, 7-10 September 2000

(SIG: Leading and Managing in Schools)


ABSTACT In this paper we report the findings from interviews with ten primary headteachers on their changing role over the last fifteen or so years and on their relationships with their deputies. The findings are reported in a series of vignettes from which we seek to capture the main themes that emerged from the interviews. We identify four distinct 'Ages' in the recent history of primary schools and the characteristics of an ideal partnership between a head and a deputy that will enable their school to meet the challenges of the recent Green Paper.


We were invited to give a keynote address on 'The Role of the Deputy Head - The Green Paper and Beyond' to the Birmingham Primary Deputy Headteachers Annual Conference earlier in the year. One of the key proposals in the Green Paper (DfEE, 1998) as far as deputies are concerned is a new pay system for teachers including a Performance Threshold giving access to a higher pay range. This, in turn, is part of a Performance Management System (PMS) with new appraisal arrangements involving a thorough annual assessment of performance against agreed targets. When we began to think about this address, we agreed that our best approach was to interview some heads of successful primary schools and report what they had to say, rather than to present a review of the recent literature. However we do acknowledge the very valuable work that has been done on the characteristics of successful head and deputy partnerships by, in particular, Hughes and James (1999) and Southworth (1998) which we will refer to later. We interviewed ten heads and asked them five questions:

However we did not speak to any deputies. In our analysis we will mainly draw on the first five of these interviews and present a series of vignettes which seek to capture the main themes that emerged in the interviews and also set them in context. In the event the heads talked about deputies that they have or are working with, and also reflected on the changing role of the head over the last fifteen or so years. Our overwhelming impression from these interviews was that these heads work very closely with their deputies and senior management teams (SMTs) and we would not agree with Southworth's (1999) conclusions that:

"Changes are undoubtedly taking place in headship, but there are also some enduring features, the most notable one being the continuity of headship as an individual leadership act." page 60

"Nevertheless, the most striking feature of their comments was their conception of headship as solitary, positional and powerful." page 61

The Interviews

The first head was appointed about twelve years ago, around about the time of the introduction of the Education Reform Act (ERA) in 1988. Since his appointment, he has worked with three deputies. The first was the established deputy at the school and she had expected to become the head. The head said that they rarely saw eye to eye, he wanted to move the school forward while she wanted it to stay the same. The relationship was disaster and she eventually resigned. The head established a very effective partnership with the second deputy. They complemented one another. At the time the head had lots of ideas and enthusiasm and wanted to move the school forward quickly whereas the deputy was more cautious. But they made a good team, as the head concluded:

"The personal relationship with the deputy is the crucial thing."

However this deputy left last year to take up a headship himself. The third deputy is now finding her feet in the school and the head is building a new relationship with her which is based on a completely different way of working together than with the previous deputy. This deputy is now the one with the fresh ideas and enthusiasm, as the head commented:

"I may have become part of the fixtures."

So the partnership depends on many things; not only a personal relationship based on trust, respect and a common view of the school, but also on the age and experience of the head.

The head also spoke of how schools have changed over the past fifteen years. Before the ERA - what we will call the Age of Innocence - the head said:

"The head's role was pretty minimal."

Then the ERA and years immediately afterwards - what we will call the Age of Opportunity - brought new responsibilities and opportunities and a need for visionary heads. This was particularly true of those heads who took their schools along the Grant Maintained route.

"With LMS, there was a liberating effect of schools being able to make decisions for themselves."

But gradually in the 90s - what we call the Age of Managerialism - the head argued that heads have become managers and bureaucrats, implementing central initiatives and successive Government's agendas.

"I see myself as a middle manager now as the Government is so clearly in charge. There is less and less autonomy and more and more constraints. My social life has gone out of the window."

However - partly because of doing the Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers (LPSH) - he saw the future rather differently and more optimistically - what we call the Age of Rediscovery - where schools will become more assertive. They will, more and more, adapt rather than adopt central initiatives to meet the needs of their own pupils. They will rediscover their own focus and distinctiveness. Moreover, he argued, teachers, co-ordinators and the SMT will focus much more on the curriculum and its delivery and much less on school management. Schools will continue to appoint, train and delegate more and more routine management and administration to Office Managers and Bursars so that the head can also focus much more on the classroom. He told me of the current emphasis by Ofsted on the "self-evaluating school", with the head as the "resident inspector", which is reinforced by the proposals in the Green Paper. Thus, he argued, the traditional role of the deputy as the "half way house " between the head and the staff would become even more important.

The second head saw one of his main responsibilities as that of training his deputy (and indeed the rest of his staff), and then delegating a great deal of responsibility for managing the school to them. To enable this to happen, the deputy has a half timetable, but:

"not with one class but dotting around the school, and I have the other half".

He also talked about the deputy being able to balance the head's talents: to put it simply, he saw himself essentially as a "people person" working at the "coal face" whereas the deputy was much stronger, thankfully, on the "paper side". But not only has the deputy a half timetable, but she also has her own room where she can talk, in privacy, with other staff. However this head was worried that the Green Paper, and in particular the new Performance Management System (PMS), would destroy the "bond of trust" that he has so carefully built up and nurtured with his staff, if the emphasis moves from supporting staff to judging them. However the role of the deputy as a coach to help staff through the Performance Threshold could become an important aspect of her work in the future. This deputy also chairs the SMT which acts as a "think tank" to develop new ideas rather than dealing with the routine management of the school. The head attends these meetings occasionally!

The third head was also positive about the future of the deputy:

"In a primary school you will always need a deputy head, someone to bounce ideas off".

One of his main priorities at the moment is to reduce bureaucracy and the number of meetings that staff have to attend. This means that more and more of the management of the school is in the hands of the head and the deputy. They have defined their separate roles very carefully to avoid "muddling through". As far as the new PMS, the head pointed out that much of this was already in place. He holds annual interviews with those staff who have scale posts and the deputy sees the rest:

"So there is not much of a gear change to the new system for us."

He also teaches just under a half timetable but was less comfortable with the notion of the head as the "resident inspector". As an established head, he also sees his deputy as a source of exciting ideas and he tries to give her a great deal of freedom to develop these and not to interfere.

In the first three interviews, it was clear that heads were giving much more priority to the curriculum, teaching and learning, and striving to reduce the demands of management and administration on themselves and on the rest of their staff. Some might call this a trend towards more autocratic management but a radical interpretation is a refocusing on, if you like, the core business of the school - what's happening in the classroom.

The fourth head took this argument to its logical extreme and painted a vivid picture of the Age of Rediscovery. This head argued that:

"the head's role should be in the classroom with the children 100% of the time, either teaching herself or monitoring and supporting the teaching of others."

She also argued that the management of the school should be shared around so that it does not become burdensome to any one individual together with a strengthening of the roles of the Office Manager/Administrator and the Bursar. In this way the head knows precisely what's going on in the school and what is needed, and can give an accurate account of this when necessary (an approach which was well received at a recent Ofsted). She argued that:

"The one common factor when I meet heads is that they do not know what is going on in the classrooms in their own school."

This head has been ruthless is stripping away excess management and bureaucracy. The work of the Governing Body is handled by the clerk and head does not believe in endless meetings in school, for example about the School Development or Improvement Plan. She does not go on courses or to meetings outside school unless they will directly benefit the children. This head told me that "I do exactly what I am paid to do". She used to think that if you talked through an issue and planned carefully how to resolve it, it happened. But she found it does not! "Just do it" is her motto! The proposals in the Green Paper seems to confirm her view that the future role of the head is in the classroom: teaching, monitoring, supporting and solving problems and developing learning. Her deputy shares this philosophy and so, together, they lead one of the most successful primary schools in Birmingham and in one of the most deprived areas of the City.

However the last head was more sceptical about being 100% in the classroom, especially in the current entrepreneurial and bidding culture that the present Government has produced. The time taken to secure and to spend funds that are available from a wide variety of sources is, in his view, a very considerable task. Nevertheless he does visit classes very regularly, looks at the teachers' planning and samples the children's work and so claimed:

"I have a handle on what's going on in the classrooms."

Last year his deputy worked closely with the Year 2 and Year 6 teachers in the mornings, three afternoons were spent working with and releasing other teachers and the two remaining afternoons were for her school management work. This idea of using the deputy to support the two key year groups that are taking SATs seems to have much to commend it. This year, because of a long term absence, the deputy has had to do more classroom teaching which, of course, enhances her credibility with the rest of the teachers.

The Four Ages

We have summarised the changes that have taken place in primary schools over the last fifteen years or so in terms of four 'Ages'.

The Age of Innocence

"I have been the head here for 25 years. When I started in those days, it was relatively simple."

"The school was very badly funded so my job for many years was essentially that of a cover teacher. It was very dispiriting."

"The head's role was pretty minimal."

The Age of Opportunity

"With LMS, there was a liberating effect of schools being able to make decisions for themselves."

"Having your own budget was wonderful."

The Age of Managerialism

"I see myself as a middle manager now as the Government is so clearly in charge. There is less and less autonomy and more and more constraints. My social life has gone out of the window."

"The changes have allowed heads to sit in their offices with their computers. There is no computer in my room. I see young heads pouring over their computer all day. They don't know the kids."

"The one common factor when I meet heads is that they do not know what is going on in the classrooms in their own school."

The Age of Rediscovery

"That's where the head should be - in the classroom - and that's where most heads would like to be."

"Teaching and learning is back at the heart of the head's agenda, and moving away from management and administration."

"We are breaking up the curriculum. We are not listening to the Government any more."

The General Issues

A number of general issues arose from the interviews:

The Characteristics of a Successful Partnership between the Head and the Deputy

Southworth (1998) lists nine characteristics of successful head and deputy partnerships:

Hughes and James (1999) list five characteristics of successful head and deputy head partnerships which overlap with those of Southworth, although expressed rather differently:

Obviously our own list of characteristics overlaps with the previous research but, drawn from the best practice in our vignettes, we would argue that an ideal partnership to respond to the demands of the Green Paper and beyond depends on the deputy having or forming a:


We look forward to a discussion of our suggestions of the four 'Ages' in the recent history of primary schools and of the seven characteristics of an ideal head and deputy partnership. We argue that the vignettes place these characteristics in context so that they do not appear as yet another set of 'bullet points' that too easily over-simplify and fail to represent the complex realities in schools.

Relevant Literature

Day C, Hall C and Whitaker P (1998) Developing Leadership in Primary Schools. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

Department for Education and Employment (1998) Teachers - meeting the challenge of change. London: The Stationery Office.

Garrett V and McGeachie B (1999) Preparation for headship? The role of the deputy head in the primary school, School Leadership & Management, 19(1), 67-81.

Glatter R (2000) Performance management: getting away from the tick boxes. Management in Education, 14(1), 7-8.

Hughes M and James C (1999) The relationship between the head and the deputy head in primary schools, School Leadership & Management, 19(1), 83-95.

James C and Whiting D (1998) The career perspectives of deputy heads, Educational Management & Administration, 26(4), 353-362.

Pascal C and Ribbins P (1998) Understanding Primary Headteachers. Conversations on Characters, Careers and Characteristics. London: Cassell.

Ribbins P (1997) Heads on deputy headship, Educational Management & Administration, 25(3), 295-308.

Southworth G (1998) Leading Improving Primary Schools. The Work of Headteachers and Deputy Heads. London: Falmer Press.

Southworth G (1999) Primary school leadership in England: policy, practice and theory, School Leadership & Management, 19(1), 49-65.

Tomlinson H (2000) Payment by results? Management in Education, 14(2), 11-14.

Wallace M and Huckman L (1999) Senior Management Teams in Primary Schools. The Quest for Synergy. London: Routledge.

Webb R and Vulliamy G (1996) Roles and Responsibilities in the Primary School. Changing Demands, Changing Practices. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Address for correspondence

Dr R J D Rutherford
School of Education
The University of Birmingham
Birmingham B15 2TT
Tel: 0121 414 4804

This document was added to the Education-line database on 05 December 2000