Angela Youngman talks to heads of small schools around the country and gains an overview of the challenges and pleasures of the job
To be a headteacher in a small primary school has to be one of the most uniquely challenging jobs around. Often the headteacher has to combine leading and managing a school with teaching a class for the major part of a week. Such a situation is not new – that has been commonplace in small schools since the Victorian era. What makes their task more difficult nowadays is the sheer amount of paperwork, bureaucracy and learning initiatives that abound, together with the permanent worry that their small size might eventually lead to talk of closure.
There can be little doubt that headteachers of small schools need access to a tailored range of strategies and activities to support and secure effective leadership while sustaining and improving standards. In recognition of this, some local authorities are seeking to develop specific small school programmes. Norfolk County Council, for example, has been working with headteachers and other agencies to develop programmes that support school leadership and promote interdependence, collaboration and the sharing of effective practice. The Small Schools Consultative Group and the Partnership Heads Group are two such key groups who have been involved in this work.
These groups meet regularly to share good practice and discuss issues affecting small schools. In addition, Norfolk County Council organise conferences for small school headteachers that are centred on the problems and issues facing small schools. The most recent such conference was held last November and focused on extended schools in rural areas.
Support is also provided on an individual school basis around issues such as mixed-age classes and adapting the curriculum to work in small schools. Opportunities are made for schools to be involved in networks that both support each other and build on existing strengths.
Schools can become members of the National Small School Forum. This will provide access to a website full of information and advice, as well as regular mailings focusing on small school issues.
Delegation is a key part of managing a small school. Headteachers were unanimous in saying that delegating and sharing responsibilities made a lot of difference. Identify any special skills that a teacher or support staff may have – and make full use of them. Trust office staff to do their jobs – one headteacher was reported as spending time every week entering up cheques on the computer. Such a task could easily be done by the school secretary, thus leaving the head free to do other more important tasks. ‘You have to treat people on your staff as equal members of the team with distinctive roles. You have got to delegate some administrative work and trust that it is done correctly,’ said Sue Travis headteacher at North Repps Primary School in north Norfolk where there are 44 children on the roll, divided into three mixed-age classes.
Budgets are the key management problem of any small school head. Sue Travis says: ‘I am very lucky that the secretary is a qualified bursar. She is able to deal with a lot of premises issues and budget issues. This frees me to deal with teaching, leadership and management parts of the job.’
Good staff relationships are crucial. ‘You do rely on each other in a small school. You have to work very hard at relationships. If you invest in this it pays off as people will help out when help is needed,’ comments Julie Claxton of Rodmell School, Sussex. ‘You rely on the good will of other people. If someone is sick, everyone has to muck in. We work with universities to take on students for teaching practice. Although mentoring takes up time, it gives us another teacher, and access to new ideas.’
Due to the low staff numbers, teaching staff invariably become subject coordinators for two or three subjects in addition to their usual teaching role. When they need time out of the classroom, it is the headteacher who usually has to take over. Sue Travis says: ‘I have three teachers apart from myself. I am usually teaching a lot of the time in order to cover for PPA time or sickness. We have cut down on staff meetings and have just one a week from 3.30 to 5pm. It is all about prioritising. I had a Key Stage 1 teacher who spent all weekend planning lessons and came in exhausted on the Monday. Now I insist that my staff have time to rest and we look for shortcuts on planning.’
Space can be a problem. Many small schools are located in villages, and date back to Victorian times. There is often little space to build more facilities – and little money to do so anyway.
Making links with other small schools
Small schools are often criticised for not being able to provide the opportunities and wide curriculum that may be available in larger schools. To get round this problem, many headteachers are linking up with other schools to provide joint activities. Ermington Primary School in south Devon has 149 children on the roll yet it has managed to take children on a residential trip to Paris, and attracted funding for an initiative to raise standards in boys’ reading. It did this by collaborating with other small schools in the area. Headteacher Jane Byrne explains: ‘By linking together we gained funding for £17,000 between five small schools. This enabled us to develop quality resources to improve reading. There have been other joint opportunities too – for example, an opportunity to do a Swiss project on maths with the University of Plymouth.’
The success of the initial reading collaboration led to links being developed with another small school to go on a joint visit to France, as Byrne indicates: ‘We decided it would be lovely to do a residential trip overseas. By combining with another school it kept costs down. My colleague went out for the pre-visit and did the risk assessment for both schools. We had to clear the visit with both sets of governing bodies and with the education authority. We had to liaise a lot, and chose to use a residential trips company to do much of the organisation. It was time consuming but worth the effort as it gave the children something they would not otherwise have had.’
Networking is seen as highly important by small school headteachers. All headteachers questioned about this were adamant that it was a tremendous help to them in developing management techniques, sourcing ideas, and simply getting advice. Knowing that there was someone else facing similar problems or who had been in a similar situation made all the difference. Jane Byrne commented: ‘I get great support from other headteachers. None of us has a deputy and meeting another head gives the opportunity to talk and discuss issues. You have to network a lot more when heading a small school.’
Finding new headteachers can be difficult for small schools. Mervyn Benford of the National Association for Small Schools comments: ‘Often it is the uncertainty about the future of small schools which causes the problem.’ Another difficulty is the salary. John Sheridan of recruitment consultants Arete says: ‘The differential in pay between a primary classroom teacher and a headteacher of a small school can be very small. Many teachers ask themselves – is it worth the extra responsibilities?’
Federating two or more schools under one headteacher is increasingly being seen as an answer. How successful this is depends a great deal on the teachers, headteacher and the distances between the schools. ‘If you have got two schools in neighbouring villages it can work and be cost effective. The logistics are much harder if schools are miles apart,’ says John Sheridan.
Judith Elliot Hunter has been headteacher of Hainford Primary Partnership School and Frettenham Primary School in Norfolk for the past nine years. ‘I look at it as having one job in two different places. Time management and operational skills are essential. You have to be fair to both schools and staff. I have set days when I am in each school. I don’t have class teaching responsibilities but I teach all classes for specific reasons – sickness, releasing staff for other things and so on. My schools are two and a half miles apart so if there is a crisis I can reach the other school very quickly. The senior teacher in each school is responsible when I am not on the site.’
A positive aspect of federation is the fact that it offers the deputy head greater opportunities to gain experience in running a school while having someone more experienced to call on for advice.
Initially paperwork was a problem, as Elliot Hunter acknowledges: ‘I found that a lot of material can be put together. For example, I have a joint school development plan rather than filling in the same form twice over. It is important to have the same people at the LEA dealing with both schools for personnel, buildings etc. When it comes to budgets, you have got to have an overview and you need good secretarial backup.’
An unexpected problem was the different cultures at each school. At one school pupils address their teachers by their first names; at the other teachers are Miss or Mrs. This took a little getting used to when the two schools had joint activities. No attempt has been made to impose one version over the other. Both have continued. Some teachers specialise and take classes in both schools, or take a group of children from one school to the other for a joint event. This enables the children to benefit from activities and resources they would not otherwise have had.
Another difficulty has been to ensure that all staff receive memos, news and information. ‘You have to be really sure that you have told everyone,’ Elliot Hunter says. ‘I have to keep making tick lists for myself.’
‘There have definitely been good things come out of it. We have been able to benefit from the greater expertise available across the two schools. Staff have been able to develop an expertise in certain areas and help other staff. They can do classroom observations of each other. We can do activity days and involve children from both schools.’
One of the biggest problems facing all headteachers is the need to maintain some kind of work/personal life balance. It is very easy to allow meetings, paperwork and administration to take over your life. ‘The work is always there. You have to be disciplined and make sure that you prioritise,’ comments Julie Claxton. Sue Travis agrees: ‘Some weeks it is very difficult. There are meetings I have to attend otherwise there would not be a quorum. I am getting better at saying no, but you do live the job. You have to be ruthless in selecting paperwork that is important from the rest. I have a firm rule – I don’t take it home unless it is really urgent.’
Above all, as Julie Claxton points out, ‘As a headteacher of a small school you have to be able to think on your feet all the time as you keep all the balls in the air. You have to be flexible and adaptable, prepared to do anything – caretaking, taking a class, ringing the bell. There are swings and roundabouts. You get good days and others that are not so good. But I wouldn’t change it. I would recommend anyone considering going for a job as headteacher in a small school to go for it!’
Angela Youngman is a teacher and freelance writer