David Morley, a deputy headteacher for the last five years, examines the challenges facing deputy heads in the 21st century, how the role of deputies has changed in recent years and why fewer deputy heads are moving on to headship

‘Are you a headteacher yet?’ How often have deputies heard this question from friends, family and former colleagues? The assumption is that all deputy heads are in a ‘waiting bay’; on hold until the right opportunity presents itself. While this might be true for some deputies, many are more than happy to work to their strengths.

Although the role of every deputy headteacher is different and all have their own unique career ambitions, we might still divide deputies into two categories. There is the career deputy, who grew too big for the classroom but never fancied the challenge of going just that bit further. The other is the go-getter. From NQT to deputy head in five years and headteacher a couple of years after that. The former should not feel they have to follow the same path as the latter.

Fewer applications
In fact, fewer deputy heads are applying for headships. In the GTC 2006 teaching survey 34% of headteachers said they expected to retire in the next five years, with 57% of headteachers being aged 50 and over. However, only 4% of teachers surveyed felt that it would be likely or highly likely that they would move onto headship in the next year. The report says that this ‘indicates a considerable shortfall in the number of candidates for headship.’ A report from the University of Buckingham states that three-quarters of headteachers had staff working under them who had the capabilities to become a headteacher in the future, but did not want to move up the career ladder.

Why has headship become so undesirable? The biggest factor has to be that of work-life balance. The stresses and strains of headship may be considered too much for people with modern lifestyles and young families. While deputies are reasonably well paid in relation to the rest of their school colleagues, ultimately they are not the ones where the buck stops. In the current climate of headteachers being ‘encouraged’ to move on in the light of Ofsted’s special measures, will deputies want to raise their heads over the parapet? Additionally, deputies in larger schools are often paid more than headteachers of smaller schools, traditionally seen as the first port of call in early headship.

When a head moves on
The longer a deputy stays in role the greater the likelihood that the headteacher will move on. This raises key questions for a deputy:

  • A good deputy will undoubtedly come under pressure from staff, governors and parents to take on the head’s role. But will they want you to take the role on because you are a relatively known quantity and they are uncomfortable with change?
  • A head and deputy work so closely together that when the head feels it is time to take on a new challenge, has the deputy also taken the school on as far as it can go or under the deputy’s new headship will they be able to drive the school on to new heights?
  • What happens if the new deputydecides to sit tight? Will the new partnership work out?

Professional development
In order to gain a position as a headteacher, applicants need to have completed their NPQH, be working towards its completion or have been accepted on a course. The career deputy may be unconcerned about the merits of signing up. However, all deputies must consider the benefits, even if they have no thoughts of ever becoming a headteacher.

Some deputies may even see the NPQH as their insurance policy. They may currently have a fantastic relationship with their head. However, if their head was to resign and the new partnership was incompatible, the safety net of NPQH would certainly put them at an advantage in the employment market.

For deputies who have either completed their NPQH or for those people who don’t want to travel that path, there may be very little in the way of specific professional development available. Some local authorities have been slow to recognise the specific needs of deputies and failed to provide suitable opportunities.

Are there fewer deputies?
A recent trend in primary schools has been the introduction of assistant headteachers. As some school have re-examined their staffing structure they have used two assistant headteachers rather than having a deputy. The reason for this may be financial. Assistant heads are likely to be paid less than a deputy and the impact of two aspirational members of staff is likely to be significant in raising standards.

Class teachers are now not only able to reach ‘threshold three’, but with the introduction of TLR payments, they can now get close to the earning potential of a deputy head, without the day-to-day aggravation! Headteachers have had to ensure their school pay policy accounts for these discrepancies. There is no doubting the added pressure of being ‘threshold three’ and TLR1 but does that compare to the strains of deputy headship? Who is more likely to be the one sitting with Ofsted inspectors or explaining the failure to meet performance targets to the local authority?

Casting aside the stigma
Deputy heads can feel proud of the valuable work they do in schools. The stigma of the ‘career deputy’ should be cast aside; for the foreseeable future it is likely to be a growing band with fewer deputies moving on to headship.

Survey for teachers, General Teaching Council for England, September 2006
School Headship – Present and Future, Centre for Education and Employment Research at University of Buckingham and National Union of Teachers, February 2007
Independent Study into School Headship, PricewaterhouseCoopers, January 2007 ISBN: 9781844788668

David Morley is a deputy head in a large primary school in Milton Keynes.