Deputy head Rob Bray considers how his responsibilities have changed over the years as the core function of deputy headship has developed from ‘management’ into ‘leadership’

I have been a deputy headteacher for some 20 years, serving in two different schools and working with three different headteachers. Then and now the role is both a privilege and a considerable challenge, but the role I fulfil now bears very little comparison to that which I took on 20 years ago.

What has changed? The role has certainly expanded in terms of the range of responsibilities and tasks designated to deputy headteachers, but also the core function of deputy headship is significantly different. Shortly after I became a deputy head, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL – or SHA as it was then) produced a short publication aptly entitled If It Moves, which illustrated the role of the deputy head at that time, which was in many ways a reactive one.

Essentially, a deputy head’s role was seen as managing the organisation. Many of the deputy head’s responsibilities were tasks to be carried out, whether administrative or organisational. From the dining room chairs to the school minibus to the smokers at the bottom of the field, the staff duty rota, the tuck shop – if it moved it was on the deputy’s list of things to organise or respond to. I worked in a school with three deputies and one of the year’s key meetings was to haggle over who got what on the list! The minibus was the worst.

Deputies tended to be either curriculum or pastoral. The former wrote the timetable the latter was in charge of ‘discipline’. In an age before league tables, LMS, grant maintained schools and their descendants, headteachers worked with the LEA and negotiated staffing and budgets.

The notion was that successful heads of departments (and sometimes unsuccessful ones) would naturally aspire to this elevated role of deputy as a logical precursor to the final elevation to headship. Training and preparation for the role of deputy barely existed.

Leadership, not management
Today it is very different. Last year the deputies and assistant heads group of ACSL produced another publication, this time entitled Leading Learners, Learning Leaders, a title which nicely summarised how differently the role is now perceived.

Today’s deputy works in a leadership rather than a management team. The team will be comprised of a wider range of professionals than the old orthodox model of head and two deputies. (How pejorative those words ‘management team’ seem now.) Today a leadership team will include assistant heads and a range of paraprofessionals including bursars and business managers. The majority of the administrative and organisational tasks that formed the backbone of the old deputy role are now being carried out by non-teaching colleagues.

It is instructive to scrutinise the current National Standards for Headteachers (interestingly there are no such standards for deputies and other members of the leadership team though there are for subject teachers and subject leaders) and ask which of these listed responsibilities are not included in the role descriptions of most deputy or assistant headteachers.

Headteachers do, of course, retain final overarching accountability but the reality is that they cannot be  hands-on involved in all, or even a range, of these responsibilities. Interestingly, in these national standards there seems to be only one acknowledgement that deputy and assistant headteachers exist and that is in the reference to the headteacher’s responsibility to delegate appropriately. One looks in vain for mention of the magic words ‘leadership team’ or further mention of deputy head.

Roles and responsibilities
How do the roles of headteacher and leadership team member mesh in the 21st century? The generic section headings for the National Standards for Headteachers are:

  • shaping the future
  • leading learning and teaching
  • developing self and working with others
  • managing the organisation
  • securing accountability
  • strengthening community.

These are the areas in which deputies as well as headteachers now work. Each of them will demand appropriate levels of knowledge, and key professional qualities in terms of philosophical commitment and abilities. They can be interpreted at two levels for all leadership team members. Firstly, when taken together they represent the collective role of the leadership team. Secondly, because each member of the team carries delegated strategic accountabilities, each individual will work under a specific set of these standards relevant to their role.

The ‘modern’ deputy headteacher role is likely to embrace most, if not all, of these key areas, albeit at differing levels of engagement and intensity.

Nevertheless, they are interdependent and do not exist in isolation. It is common for schools to rotate or change the involvement of leadership team members with specific key areas in order to develop staff and maintain or renew momentum.

So, a deputy headteacher’s list of responsibilities in 2006 might well include the following:

  • CPD strategy
  • oversight of NQT/ITT/GTP/staff induction
  • performance management processes
  • recruitment and appointments
  • school self-review and -evaluation
  • quality of teaching and learning
  • overview of specialist school programme
  • tracking student achievement.

In carrying out all of these, the deputy of today needs to have knowledge and understanding of: local and national trends; strategic planning processes; communication strategies; new technologies; change theory; creativity and innovation; models of CPD; strategies to promote individual and team developments; tools for data collection and analysis; models of teaching and learning; statutory requirements and public services policy… and so on.

They also need professional qualities of commitment to: effective working relationships; collaborative school visions; the inclusion agenda; self-development; effective team working; student entitlements; rigorous school self-evaluation; individual team and whole-school accountability, among others. Also vital is the ability to: interpret data; think strategically; inspire challenge and motivate others; foster an equitable culture and manage conflict; give and receive effective feedback; model the values and vision of the school.

This is all quite an advance from writing the timetable, organising the detention rota and maintaining the minibus – a clear oversimplification but not so far from my early experience as a deputy. Today’s role is without doubt more challenging but also, in my experience, infinitely more rewarding.

A changed relationship
The relationship between deputy and headteacher is also significantly different now. Within the leadership team, flatter and more distributed leadership roles are common. Models of delegation are significantly more sophisticated than they used to be. A member of the leadership team may take full autonomous responsibility of a major strand of school development.

Roles and responsibilities are likely to be flexible, negotiated, interdependent, and regularly reviewed and evaluated. The need for headteachers to call upon the expertise of deputies and assistant headteachers is probably stronger than ever. The pace of change and innovation make it likely that many headteachers may never have had hands-on experience of a whole range of developments that have been led and implemented by those senior colleagues.

Also, it has never been so necessary for headteachers and leadership team members to make good use of quality time for reflection and debate. It is unlikely that any headteacher is able to comprehend, sift, balance and distil the implications of the current rate of change and development without full and open consultation with the leadership team, simply because that rate is too intense and complex.

Deputies in particular can act as vital sounding boards. Rather than listening, understanding and responding to the views and ideas of the headteacher, the model is likely to be one where ideas are created, shaped and their implications evaluated through informed and professional discussion. It really is a case, in TS Eliot’s words, of: ‘how do we know what we’re thinking till we hear what we say?’ For the deputy, this can be an enriching and rewarding process leading to real personal and professional growth.

Limited opportunities for CPD
For a number of reasons, leadership team members often find themselves the poor relations when it comes to CPD. They are usually too tied in to the day-to-day workings of the school – even more so than headteachers – through their teaching commitment and their need to ‘walk the talk’ all day every day, to find it comfortable or easy to be out of school.

Managing CPD budgets and creating strategic CPD plans as they often do, it is common for leadership team members to place their needs at a lower priority than those of the rest of the staff. It is not that CPD in the traditional courses are not available. Most leadership team members are deluged with information about leadership programmes and courses but they are frequently expensive and demand time out of school. Too often financial pressures throw up choices which disadvantage leadership team members. Health and safety courses for three new technicians or emotional intelligence for a deputy head? No choice there then.

It is the relentless pressure that leadership team members face which often limits their opportunities to avail themselves of more appropriate and relevant CPD activities and courses. I have found involvement at national level with a teacher association the most productive of CPD experiences for two reasons. Firstly, because it deals with up-to-the-minute issues and development, and secondly, because the time for it is ring-fenced. It takes place away from school on predetermined days.

In terms of the pressures deputies face in fulfilling a more challenging role – teaching a sizeable proportion of the week, putting the CPD needs of colleagues before their own, never having enough time to do anything properly, settling for quality muddling through rather than total quality management etc – the words of AA Milne sum up our relationship to our own professional development:

‘Here is Edward Bear coming down the stairs. Bump! Bump! Bump on the back of his head behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the ONLY way of coming downstairs, but he sometimes feels that there really is another way – if only he could stop bumping for a while to think of it.’

Facing the frustrations
I find deputy headship more rewarding than ever but it is not without its frustrations. One of these is the lack of time. The majority of deputy heads are likely to teach between 30 and 50% of the week. They are likely to be the first to arrive and the last to leave school and to work long hours out of school.

A sizeable proportion of the daily mail sack is redirected straight to deputy heads. The changing role does bring increased workload and, like headteachers, deputies are the least likely members of staff to have benefited from recent initiatives to address the work-life balance.

Not all deputies enjoy the benefits of working with a headteacher who not only empowers leadership team members but inspires and motivates them. To work as a deputy for a heroic head who passes down from on high the tablets on which are written the tasks to be done must be demoralising. Such scenarios do exist still and must be extremely frustrating for the deputies concerned.

There is huge satisfaction as a deputy head in working with colleagues to develop the ethos and achievement of a school but, yes, it can be very frustrating if a new head pops up to change the direction and momentum of that development on the way to a bigger, better headship.

On a broader note, it is still hugely frustrating to see how little, outside of school, the role of the deputy headteacher (and other leadership team members) is recognised and debated. It is as though we all inhabit a dark nether world unseen and unacknowledged by government and other agencies. There is still the notion that the career deputy is somehow a lesser being who would be a head if only he/she were good enough.

Many deputies find fulfilment in the twin role of teacher and strategic leader.

Others see the incessant stream of additional pressures, targets and judgements imposed upon schools, which impact most sharply on headteachers as a disincentive to sacrifice completely peace of mind and work-life balance.

In spite of the frustrations, is it worth aspiring to deputy headship in the 21st century? Yes, I think it is – perhaps now more than ever.