In 1990 as part of my MEd degree I wrote a dissertation entitled ‘Partners’ relating to the relationship between headteachers and their deputies. It followed other research which I had undertaken and sought to explore the possible development of the role of the deputy. It was particularly significant at that time in the light of the demands of the new legislation following the 1988 Education Act.

Twenty years on and the question is still relevant today as the demands upon heads have increased dramatically in that time. This article, the first of two, will review the role of the deputy over the past 20 years from personal experience, research and from discussion with a current deputy. The second article will feature thoughts and comments from both heads and deputies and look at the changes which have come about over the past years and which have impacted significantly on the role.

The 1970s approach

I became a deputy for the first time in 1973. I had been teaching for just over five years, had achieved two ‘scale posts’ of responsibility in that time and applied for the post of deputy in a school with 150 children. For me the role was to be the link between the teaching staff and the headteacher. This seemed to be a well-established role, as the following quote from 1975 would affirm: ‘Most primary school heads and deputies agreed that the basic essentials of a deputy head are: being a good teacher, competently helping in the administration of the school, supporting the head’s ideas and the school policies which result from them and helping to foster a friendly atmosphere among teachers’ (Coulson and Cox).

I was expected to teach a class and had a job description of 28 separate tasks. These were not negotiated and the 28th spoke of ‘any other task which the headteacher deems appropriate’. For myself I could not begin to think what these tasks might be, as the previous 27 seemed to cover most eventualities!

Nor was I alone in this limbo situation. When reviewing my 1990 dissertation, I found an earlier study in which I had interviewed seven primary deputies within my local authority. They were from a range of schools and with differing experiences. What was of significance was that four of those interviewed had no clearly defined job description. At a 20-year distance I am still wondering which situation was worse – to have too much prescribed within the role or to have no guidelines at all.

What was significant was the nature of the role and how it developed in practice. I was given little or no management/leadership training, my prime role being as a class teacher. There were no opportunities for training or networking with colleagues. At no time did I feel that I was playing a major role in the development of the school other than writing the odd subject policy. There were no attempts at development planning and the curriculum could largely be devised following the guidelines established by local authorities and individual headteachers. Similarly the studies noted above also discovered similarities in role and status. The deputies interviewed indicated that there was only a limited involvement in the overall school management structure within the school. The extent of their role was determined largely by what the headteacher was willing to devolve to them.

To a large extent this was the norm for the time. Local authorities did not have the ideas of succession planning which prevail today, nor did they seek to ‘fast track’ successful deputies into headship. Colleagues I have spoken to since that time indicate that, although there was some attempt by LAs to provide some guidance about the route to deputy headship, this tended to be haphazard and relied largely upon the ideas of individuals within the LA.

Developing a clear outline

Literature at the time on the role of the deputy and the possible training for headship was sadly lacking. This changed in 1983 when the late Patrick Whitaker (a man I was proud to call my friend) published The Primary Head. This became the definitive work for heads and those who aspired to the role. In the book Patrick outlined a nine-term (three-year) plan to assist heads in developing their deputies to meet the challenges of the role. For the first time there was a clear outline for the future for the deputy without the ad-hoc system of the past.

Other studies had begun to focus upon the role of the deputy in greater detail. In their study of five primary schools, Nias, Southworth and Yeomans (1989) found that the deputies undertook a wide range of roles. These included being the conduit for information, supporting the head in the development of policies and working alongside staff. The study also found that many of them sought to lessen the workload on their colleagues by taking on the more mundane tasks.

One particularly significant point which emerged from this study was the development between the head and the deputy of what was described as a cultural partnership. This was the extent to which there was a shared understanding and belief on the direction of the school and how these aims could be achieved. Of equal significance was the fact that in each of the schools the head had appointed their own deputy, choosing the one who had a philosophy closest to their own.

In 1994 Southworth had further investigated these findings and wrote a chapter in Readings in Primary School Management which provided further details on the cultural partnership. After detailing the changes which had taken place in the role of the deputy, he concluded that the partnership with the head was a significant factor in the effectiveness of the school. He noted that this partnership was a professional obligation and not an option or a matter of luck. Only through this channel could school development be taken to another more effective level – one which had real benefits for pupils and learners. He also indicated the benefits of the partnership in modelling collaboration for staff.

By this time two significant events had occurred in my own career path. A move to another local authority as the deputy of a larger school showed me how the role of the deputy had developed to meet a changing world. The move coincided with the introduction of both the National Curriculum and local financial management and these had been embraced by the head who was anxious to be at the forefront of these new developments.

I was totally involved in the production of the school development plan, gained great insights into the new arrangements relating to finance and was released from a full-time class teaching commitment. This enabled me to gain an understanding of all classes in the school, provide release time for teachers and to have a whole-school perspective.

Of equal, but on reflection possibly greater, significance was the role of the local authority in promoting both the idea and the value of creating a framework which allowed deputies to meet on a regular basis to discuss pertinent management issues. They also utilized the skills of the aforementioned Patrick Whitaker and others to speak to the group. I was then closely involved in developing a one-day conference for deputies across the LA and there I first met Geoff Southworth and John West Burnham, two men who would play a significant part in my later career. Exposure to a wider range of educational thinking allowed colleagues and myself to approach headship with a far greater knowledge than had previously been available.

Professional development opportunities

When I attained a headship in 1992 I recognized that I had gained a great deal of experience and understanding both relating to headship and also in my thoughts about the role of the deputy in my school. From the start I sought to develop a close relationship with my deputy. We spoke on many occasions about our shared philosophy and what we wanted for the school. I insisted my deputy be given a high profile, with his name on the school headed notepaper and on newsletters. We ensured that a united front was presented to staff. After I left the school, he moved into his own headship and we have continued to meet both professionally and personally since that time.

In the past 15 years, and particularly since the growth in influence of the National College, there have been greater opportunities for those aspiring to deputy headship. Programs such as Leading from the Middle and Leadership Pathways have ensured that those seeking to take on the role have a greater insight into the complexities than ever before. The National Professional Qualification for Headship, particularly before 2008, was available to all those who sought to develop their leadership skills. This included many who later became deputy heads.

One such individual was my younger son, Christopher Short. He followed in my footsteps by gaining his first deputy head post in 2008. I asked him about his present role and he responded with: ‘As with all deputies I have a range of tasks – including assessment analysis, performance management, responsibility for an area of the SIP, leadership of a Key Stage, running the school council and general management – rotas and timetables etc. Obviously I have a class responsibility for four days a week as well and at my place I am PE and ICT guru too. I think there should be a “catch-all” phrase in a deputy’s job description that states “in addition to the above duties the deputy will undertake any jobs requested by the head”, as the role is one where you are asked to do quick jobs that the head is keen on, can’t do themselves or hasn’t got time to do as well as the ones that the rest of the staff don’t want to do. There is lots of covering for the head for assemblies, lunchtime duties, meetings with parents/other professionals, etc, and I am the first port of call for the majority of staff – “Can you ask the head … Do you think I could…”

‘I have been on a number of leadership/management courses, as well as those that link in with whole school issues – the majority of these have been with the head. The authority holds an annual deputies and assistant heads conference, which gives us the chance to get together and network, as well as having speakers – this year we looked at using ICT in leadership, governance, leaders as learners. In the past we have had the head of NCSL – who was great – as well as new, or acting, heads who come in and tell us all that we want to be heads! Following this year’s conference we have decided to create a cluster group, which I am hoping to get involved with – this will be aimed at organizing events that will help with deputies’ CPD.’

A reservoir of talent

There have been many valuable developments in the training for deputy headship before appointment and the opportunities while in post have increased thanks to local authorities recognizing the importance of the role. This is in part due to the recognition that headship has grown in complexity and also in order to ensure that there is a reservoir of talent ready to take on headship in the future. The views of those who are undertaking this crucial role and the heads who work with them will be explored in the next article.

Neil Short is a former headteacher now working as an independent consultant


  • ‘The Role of the Deputy Head’ by A Coulson and M Cox, from The Study of Primary Education Falmer Press, 1985
  • The Primary Head by P Whitaker, Heinemann, 1983
  • ‘Partners’ by Neil Short. Unpublished dissertation for MEd Nottingham University, 1990
  • Staff Relationships in the Primary School by J Nias, G Southworth and R Yeomans, Cassell Education, 1989
  • ‘Headteachers and Deputy Heads: Partners and Cultural Leaders’ by G Southworth in Readings in Primary School Management Falmer Press, 1994