Liz Robinson became head of Surrey Square Primary School in January 2006. She was just 29 at the time, making her the youngest headteacher in England. Following an outstanding Ofsted in November 2009, she was asked to lead the amalgamation with the linked Infant School, and the newly formed Primary School was judged outstanding in November 2016. Liz, and her colleague Nicola Noble, developed a model of co-headship from 2014 onwards. In this article, Liz discusses how working flexibly has helped her to balance work and family life, and how herself and Nicola made a co-headship model of leadership work successfully, both for themselves and for their school.
How did the co-headship model begin?
When I became Head of Surrey Square Primary School at the age of 29, I knew that I also wanted to have a family of my own one day, but I didn’t want that to put me off progressing in my career and fulfilling my potential at work. Once I had my first child, several years later, I was determined to continue to be a head teacher; however, after eight years of headship I knew very well by then the sheer amount of commitment involved in fulfilling the role! Therefore, I knew that I needed to find a solution, which would work for me personally, to ensure that my role as headteacher would be compatible with my family life, in such a way that neither one would suffer because of the other.
It just so happened that my deputy head, Nicola Noble, had gone on maternity leave a couple of months before I did; therefore, when she returned, she took on the role of ‘acting head teacher’ for two months before my return. We discussed our situation, and both decided that we would like to work four days a week in order to balance the commitments of work and motherhood, and that’s how the initial concept of a co-headship first emerged. It took some time to research the idea, and how it would work in practice. This included visiting local schools who were already operating under a co-headship model, and discussing with them the pros, cons, and logistics of the approach.
“I knew that I needed to find a solution, which would work for me personally, to ensure that my role as headteacher would be compatible with my family life.”
When we made our case to the governors, as well as presenting all the positive aspects of having two head teachers, effectively working eight days a week between us, we also had to be in a position to outline costs, where accountability would lie in every area, and how the school could safeguard against any risks that such a model could potentially present. Key decisions had to be made about who would take the main responsibility in each area, and where the two of us would take joint responsibility (such as with culture, ethos and values). It was also decided that our appraisal would be a joint appraisal, with shared targets and objectives. We would, however, have different developmental targets due to our differing levels of experience in the headship role (with Nicola being new to the role). Once all of the key the decisions had been made and agreed upon, they were carefully documented, including the systems and procedures which would be put into place should any disagreements occur in the future. As a consequence, everybody was suitably reassured that the co-headship model would be able to work effectively at the school!
Nicola and I were already very used to working closely with one another, so we didn’t find the transition to a co-headship model particularly difficult. Despite the fact that Nicola was new to headship, we both made sure we were equals from the beginning in terms of our decision making and responsibility. Initially, however, I did help to coach Nicola in many of the areas of headship which were new to her, but gradually I stepped away from this mentoring role and gave Nicola more responsibility and autonomy as she became more confident. Eventually, she was asking for advice much less, and it didn’t take her long to find her stride as a head teacher in her own right. Another thing that helped with the transition to a co-headship model, and in fact, throughout our time as co-heads, was the joint coaching sessions we had together for one day of each half term. For us, this was a safe space to talk about how the co-headship was going and reflect upon the past half term together.
Advantages of co-headship
The co-headship shared between Nicola and myself at Surrey Square lasted for 5 years, until I took up my new post as Co-Director of Big Education Academy Trust last September. Our co-headship was a harmonious and effective one, which had many different benefits (especially given our situation as new mothers) compared to a sole-headship. It made the headship role so much more sustainable for both of us, as it helped us on practical level to spend more time with our families, and to have more of a work-life balance. We both worked four days a week, and on my day off, I did not have to worry about work building up, or have the pressure of being on call to respond to emails throughout the day. I knew that the school was in safe hands. While I know I could have also relied on Nicola when she was my deputy, there would have been a lot more guilt involved, as I would have been asking her to fulfil duties beyond her role. Having a co-headship means having a trusted person in charge in school on your day off, and that meant as well as physically getting away from work, I could mentally get away too, and focus on my childrem 100%.
“Having a co-headship means having a trusted person in charge in school on your day off, and that meant as well as physically getting away from work, I could mentally get away too, and focus on my children 100%.”
Being part of a co-headship model of leadership takes the pressure off in other ways too. Being a headteacher is a highly accountable role, and one that can, at times, feel quite isolating, especially when it comes to dealing with complex and challenging issues alone. With a co-headship comes joint accountability, and you’re in that together as a team, and from an emotional perspective, I think you feel less pressure and anxiety as a result.
Being part of a co-headship means you can discuss issues together, and again, that makes the job so much more sustainable in the long run. Two heads are also often better than one (no pun intended!) when it comes to working through problems, coming up with solutions, and moving forward with new ideas. Everyone thinks differently, so with a co-headship you have two different perspectives. Nicola would often spot things I didn’t and vice versa, and we would also generate different ideas and solutions, which we may not have thought of alone.
“Being part of a co-headship means you can discuss issues together, and again, that makes the job so much more sustainable in the long run.”
As you have to come to joint decisions, it also forces you to properly discuss, reflect, and consider another perspective, before acting. Therefore, I would say that co- headship keeps you humble, self-aware, and continually focused on the importance of communication and the viewpoints of others.
Had I not had the opportunity to go into co-headship with Nicola, I may well have made the decision to stop being a Headteacher altogether, and that would have been such a shame. Instead, I have been able to continue to develop my career successfully, and have also been able to continue to be ambitious, and to progress. Last September I took up a new role as Co-Director of our Trust (Big Education), and I continue to work four days a week in this new role, alongside the Trust’s other Co-director, Peter.
Challenges - and how they can be overcome
I think one of the main challenges of co-headship is convincing people that it can be an effective model of leadership in the first instance! It is still a relatively unusual model, and articulating it to governors, staff and parents can be difficult at first. Even if you do not encounter direct opposition to the idea, you will almost certainly come up against some apprehension and concerns. Having a solid plan in place, which clearly demonstrates how the model will work, and how potential problems will be overcome, is crucial to building up trust and support for a new co-headship model. Also having systems and procedures clearly set out in writing is very important for reassuring the governors and the school community that adopting the model will not present any risk to the school. Finally, laying out all the many advantages of co-headship is key, especially explaining why, in your context, co-headship will actually be a better model, and all the ways it will benefit your school.
“Having a solid plan in place, which clearly demonstrates how the model will work, and how potential problems will be overcome, is crucial to building up trust and support for a new co-headship model.”
A second challenge is whether you and your co-head will work well together as a team, or if you will encounter any serious problems in your working relationship during the process of co-headship. Again, this is where the importance of having clear documentation (a contract) for how to deal with such a situation is key. It also needs to be clear who is taking responsibility in which areas, and which areas constitute joint and equal responsibility.
I think it is also important to point out here that co-headship will not work for everyone. However, it is ideal for those who enjoy coming to decisions through discussion and as part of a team, are open-minded to other perspectives, able to compromise, and willing to be vulnerable enough to having the occasional difficult conversation.
To make a co-headship work you must meet regularly (at least once a week), and you must work out a system to keep one another informed of any developments. You need to talk and reflect regularly about how you are working together, and raise any issues, or even potential issues, as soon as they are recognised. It is crucial to get any concerns out in the open as soon as possible before they are allowed to escalate. Nearly all issues can be solved by listening to one another carefully, and being sincerely committed to finding the best way of moving forward together as a team.
I’m at a really exciting time in my career, as I embark on the new challenge of co-director of Big Education Trust alongside Peter. I’m really pleased to be working within a model of co-leadership again, and this time it feels even more pioneering, as there are so few co-leaders of Academy Trusts out there at the moment.
“I’m really pleased to be working within a model of co-leadership again, and this time it feels even more pioneering, as there are so few co-leaders of Academy Trusts out there at the moment.”
Peter and I have a strong shared vision for our Trust. We are passionate about asking bigger questions about what schools can and should be about, and about enabling every child to find their own success and fulfil their potential. We think that success should reach far beyond a narrow focus on academic outcomes, and that’s why we’ve called our Trust ‘Big Education’, because a big, broad, and ambitious education is what we believe in. We are developing an education of ‘the heart, the hand, and the head’, and want to educate our children in a much fuller and more rounded way than the traditional curriculum allows. An education of the heart, hand, and head includes learning and applying knowledge, developing an understanding of the self, others, and the world, learning to form ideas and concepts, think critically, create, and problem-solve, and taking time to consider how each of us can make a positive difference to our communities and the wider world.
‘Big Education’ is about striving for academic and personal excellence; we want to raise expectations and aspirations across the board. Our aim is to treat our pupils as the individuals that they are, allowing each to build on their own unique abilities, interests and talents, in order to prepare them to embrace the challenges of work, and find their own path to success in life. Over the next few years Peter and myself are excited about doing all that we can, as Co-Directors of Big Education, to bring this vision to life.