School leadership teams have become increasingly complex, with two roles sometimes being created where there was once one. The sole deputy model has advantages, challenges and potential pitfalls however, say deputy heads Paul Ainsworth and Josephine Smith

Some of us may be unfortunate enough to be able to recall scenarios where the bond between the head and deputy head of a school has broken down, in some cases to such an extent that head and deputy are at loggerheads. Teaching staff may respond in many ways to this. The most damaging is probably their demotivation resulting from a lack of leadership or perhaps the Machiavellian opportunity to play the SLT off against each other.

When we first became secondary school teachers, it was normal for average sized schools to have a senior leadership team comprising a head, a deputy and in some schools, senior teachers. There was increasing recognition that teaching needed to be developed and evaluated as an institution. To address this issue, the role of the deputy was often divided among two colleagues, with one taking the curriculum responsibility and the other pastoral duties.

Since then, leadership of schools has become ever more complex, including leadership responsibilities for specialist school status, an increased recognition of the role of the school business manager and more federations or collaborations between schools. A difficulty in recruiting for some curriculum leadership roles and a desire to create greater leadership capacity has seen an increase in the number of assistant headship posts in many schools.

Upon the departure of one deputy head, a recent trend in many schools has been to return to a structure with a sole deputy, while maybe appointing an internal candidate as an additional assistant head. The more cynical reader may suggest this is purely a cost-saving exercise. Indeed, with increasing demands on staffing budgets, one head new in post agreed quite readily that assistant heads provided better value for money.

As sole deputies ourselves, we would prefer to think that such appointments have considerable benefits to the headteacher, the school and the post holder themselves. If you are considering applying for a post as a sole deputy, about to become one on the departure of a deputy colleague or are a headteacher who finds themselves needing to reorganize the staffing structure, it is well worth looking closely at the pros and cons of this option.

The advantages of a sole deputy

There is no doubt that being a sole deputy is the best possible preparation for headship. Whenever the headteacher is out of school, the lines of devolved responsibility are absolutely clear: the deputy is the acting headteacher.

In the current climate of discussions and concerns about leadership succession planning, a deputy headteacher with a wide-ranging experience of both pastoral and curriculum issues is clearly regarded by staff, parents and governors as the headteacher’s closest aide and representative. The leap from this post to that of headteacher is clear to see – a sole deputy is in a strong position at headship interviews because of the level of responsibility and accountability they have already experienced in their current role.

Indeed, it is even helpful in many circumstances to have or be a sole deputy. Without the need to double-check decisions with a deputy colleague for fear of treading on their toes or offending them, a sole deputy is free to act on the head’s behalf unhindered and put decisions into action swiftly.

Absence of the headteacher

In the unfortunate event of the head’s illness or extended absence, the existence of a sole deputy means that the reins of the school are passed definitively to one person with all other staff understanding without question or contention about who to look to for key decisions. Indeed, the role of sole deputy makes lines of management and delegation very clear for all staff, from middle managers seeking approval for new curriculum initiatives, to pastoral leaders wanting the go-ahead on exclusion tariffs, to the school financial manager needing the devolved power to action financial decisions. Even at events as routine as staff briefing, teaching and support staff will look to the sole deputy to ‘steer the ship’, and acceptance of this responsibility is part of the job itself.

From the point of view of a sole deputy, it appears that staff often assume that in the head’s absence you are up to speed on all of his or her decisions and know details of conversations from meetings that you may not have attended. Governors will assume this too. On one day last term, when the head was away, one of us found ourselves dealing with a sensitive issue of rental agreements on an electricity sub-station on the school grounds. A telephone call from the solicitors was pushing for an extension to the lease before the end of the working day which meant that decisions had to be made quickly, based on very little knowledge or information.

The governor who chaired the premises committee proved to be an invaluable support, but assumed that such a significant discussion must be widely understood throughout the school, even though it was something only the head and governors had previously discussed. A sole deputy might find themselves using the governors for support in the same way as a head does. The need to be up to speed on whole-school issues outside of the day-to-day running of the school is even more pertinent when there is one person clearly responsible in the head’s absence.

Port of call for parents

Parents too will rightly and understandably look to a sole deputy as a key decision-maker. Indeed, as deputy, part of your role may well be to relieve the headteacher from discussions that are amazingly significant to a parent but can be appropriately dealt with by the deputy. Decisions regarding shutting the school to pupils in case of emergency, or unavoidable situations such as power cuts or very bad weather conditions, are some such decisions that a sole deputy might need to make in the head’s absence. Decisions like this affect a lot of parents and pupils, and they are probably some of the most nerve-wracking a deputy might be required to make. Nevertheless, making such decisions can prove the mettle of a sole deputy.

One of the most fascinating relationships in the headteacher’s absence, though, is with fellow headteachers, which can prove very valuable in terms of experience for career progression. In most areas of the country, secondary schools are involved in some type of collaboration to deliver the wide demands of the 14-19 curriculum. These often require very sensitive discussions with fellow headteachers to move such developments forward.

Fellow headteachers will expect the sole deputy to step up to plate and make decisions which could have far reaching implications. The head and deputy could even use their strong relationship as a tactic in certain situations – for example, sending the deputy to some heads meetings to communicate more unpalatable comments than the head can diplomatically make.

Opportunities for distributed leadership

Where a school has a sole deputy, clear lines of leadership responsibility among assistant headteachers or senior teachers are vital. Distributed leadership models are key and play an important part in creating opportunities for staff wishing to develop as school leaders.

If this is your school model, you will undoubtedly have given careful thought to how you maximize leadership opportunities for other staff in your school. You might prefer a project-style approach, with senior teachers being able to lead individual projects in your school (an application for a mark such as Careermark or Sportsmark, a specialist college bid or the introduction of a new assessment, tracking and reporting system, for example).

Other schools ensure that middle leadership posts are well remunerated but carry with them wider responsibilities than curriculum or pastoral development. Middle leaders will need to be strategic thinkers and confident enough to respond to more challenging day-to-day issues within the school. If your middle leaders are not this experienced or confident yet, perhaps you still need the leadership capacity of two deputies to steer school improvement.

If the sole deputy model is one that you would like to move towards, then setting up a structure whereby you are consciously identifying leadership capacity in your younger or less experienced staff is crucial. Some highly effective young middle leaders have a tendency to move quickly through the ranks of the school leadership structure only to stall at middle leadership level, with the higher posts being occupied already.

A good potential leader will seek out opportunities or responsibilities and of course there are always plenty such opportunities in forward-looking schools. But what about colleagues in your school who clearly have very specific leadership skills but lack the self-confidence to hunt out those opportunities themselves, or assume they will need to move schools to progress?

In a school with a sole deputy working closely with the headteacher, it would be easy to become an isolated senior leadership team to the detriment, rather than the protection, of the rest of the staff. Be bold enough to develop potential leaders in your school, rather than relying on your already slim leadership structure.

Of course if you are an executive headteacher with associate heads working alongside you, you will have much to contribute to this debate already. A sole deputy may, on occasion, play the role of an associate head, depending on how often their headteacher is out of school. With the growing trend for federated and collaborating schools, the move from sole deputy to associate head might be an obvious career step and one that becomes increasingly common.

Challenges for the sole deputy

So what are the hidden challenges of the sole deputy model that a headteacher and his or her sole deputy need to keep in mind? There is no doubt that selfless diplomacy is one of the key skills a sole deputy will need to possess. There will be times when a sole deputy will see a different route for school improvement, anticipate a problem with the head’s decision, or even perhaps fundamentally disagree with his or her strategy. This will always be the biggest test for a deputy. While it is a deputy’s job to warn their head of anticipated problems, it is the head’s overall responsibility to lead school progress and the deputy’s role to support this. Being a sole deputy is not a job share role with the head, although it may often feel like it!

To prevent any misunderstandings in this area, clear lines of responsibility need to be discussed and agreed. Even if the deputy is ostensibly responsible for the day-to-day running of the school, should they be mindful that there are times when it is absolutely right to defer a decision requested by a parent or governor until the head is available to make it?

The desire to prove one’s own competence as a sole deputy, along with the legitimate desire to protect the headteacher from unnecessary distraction can create a burden. This needs to be anticipated. Just as the governors have a responsibility for the head’s wellbeing, the headteacher must be mindful of their deputy’s. A deputy too needs to be mindful of their own work/life balance. They are not a headteacher (yet!), nor are they paid as one. While the experience of running the school is exciting, challenging and rewarding, they are still a cog in the machine that is a school leadership team and must play that part carefully.

Certainly a sole deputy must avoid ending up as head’s PA or crisis manager rather than a key player in strategic planning. If you have a sole deputy, perhaps you also need to consider sharing your PA or providing relatively exclusive administrative support in order for them to have the space and time to concentrate on their key functions as a school leader.

No school needs a direct replica of the head as sole deputy, either. In fact, in a  senior leadership team, the need for a variety of leadership styles is perhaps more pressing. For the school to flourish and develop, all staff need to feel confident that they can always find appropriate support. Pupils and parents also need to feel that there is someone in the school with whom they have a connection.

Indeed, in some circumstances, the sole deputy may feel it is appropriate to purposefully develop a style that is different from the head. If the head is very approachable to pupils, the deputy may have to develop a more austere relationship with the children in a school. If the head is not readily available for the staff, often through no fault of their own, the deputy may have to ensure their door is always open for colleagues.

A lonely role

As sole deputies, we find our roles to be varied, exciting and demanding in turn. However, it can feel one of the loneliest roles in a school, as well as one of the most empowering. We hope, above all, that the particular nature of our role allows us to support pupils, staff and the headteacher on a daily basis. This perhaps is the biggest joy of the job.

If you are a headteacher considering the appointment of someone to this key role, bear in mind that your relationship will need to be robust, open and skillfully navigated. In return you will get support, loyalty and a commitment that will not fail to lead to school improvement. Good luck!

Paul Ainsworth is the deputy headteacher at Belvoir High School, Nottinghamshire, and Josephine Smith is the deputy head at Long Fields High School, Leicestershire. Both schools are part of an area re-organization, at the end of which they each will be deemed 11-18 schools.