Coffee, Calpol and Co-Headship

by Claire Mitchell and Emma Turner. @clairamitch and @Emma_Turner75 

Carly.PNGTwo things recently happened that made us see the significance of our seven years of coheadship together.  ‘10% Braver: Inspiring Women to Lead in Education’ was released, and duly purchased, and consumed by each of us with great relish and shouts of “YES!!!”, followed by furious texts to each other full of awe at what this great book had stirred in us.  And then we attended our first BrewEd event together – #BrewEdHerts2019 – to present our leadership journey in a 5 minute ‘micro-presentation’.  Our talk went on much longer than the designated 5 minutes, thanks to the very gracious hosts and overwhelmingly supportive audience, as we found we had much to impart (but also because we like to waffle and get a tad over-excited when we catch-up nowadays).  Carly Waterman @621carly suggested we might try to put our presentation into a blog for WomenEd to share our story more widely – and here it is:

We were firm friends and had worked together for five years, eventually both as deputies, in our middle-sized Leicestershire primary school when the headteacher announced early in the autumn term that he was leaving in December for a new headship.  As deputies we accepted that we inevitably had to ‘hold the fort’ whilst a new head was found and agreed to split the responsibility for this 50/50 so that we could maintain our roles in Year 2 and Year 6 for the rest of the academic year.

The headship advert went out; we were asked to apply for it by the governors.  We didn’t want to; we were both planning to start families in the near future and we didn’t see ourselves as ready for the role which was far better as a distant ‘one day, maybe…’ sort of career plan.

The first round of headship adverts did not bear fruit; governors and the LA felt it would be better to go to a second round of advertising and extend the acting coheadship for another six months.  In the midst of a leadership recruitment crisis, again no suitable candidates were found.

By this point we had been doing the job for a year and had slowly started to consider that all the hard work, the worry, the joy of the role and what we had achieved would disappear if a substantive head were recruited in the third round.  It took us 12 months, but eventually we had built the confidence to see that we could do the role and that we wanted it.  The governors and Leicestershire Local Authority were incredibly supportive and quickly set about firming up the new headship.  They didn’t initially know how to pay us or how to performance manage us, but we all had faith in each other and it all got sorted fairly easily in the end.

We didn’t have any role models to go on in those early days; nobody we knew had ever shared a headship.  We had to make it up for ourselves and seek out support from sources we knew we could rely on: governors, the LA, the local heads group, colleagues from previous schools, an NPQH coach.  We had to convince all stakeholders in the school that we were a united leadership, even if there were two of us.  We had the same vision, the same values, the same love of our school.  To keep our spirits up on the tough days we drew analogies with other tightknit double acts – Thelma & Louise, Mel and Sue, Cameron and Clegg (we had some dark times!) – and still to this day fondly refer to each other as ‘Bert’ & ‘Ernie’.  Emma refers a lot in her current role about ‘finding your marigolds’ and it was precisely through doing this that we found we could grow and start to flourish.  Those around us were also starting to see the benefits that co-headship could bring as an alternative model: double the manpower, double the energy, double the capacity, and a succession model for any impending headship maternity leaves.

That is, until the day comes when you have to face that lovely, supportive governing body to tell them that, in the true spirit of co-ness, and through fate and bad planning, you are both pregnant at the same time.  Yes we had that conversation, in fact not once, but twice, in the nine years of the co-headship.  The governors twice congratulated us and twice told us to sort it out in 2011 and 2016.  Things were rather easier to organise in the middle, when Emma went on maternity leave by herself in 2013, but with amazing colleagues and plenty of forward planning, all leave periods were not just well-covered, but also led to substantial talent development, giving aspiring leaders on the staff a taste of headship without the pressure to take on the role permanently – similar to how we had benefitted ourselves in our initial ‘acting co-head’ roles.

In our ‘Coffee & Calpol’ presentation Emma explains to those who are considering leadership but concerned that it clashes with the role of being a parent that you can ‘be more Christina’.  “Made me learn a little bit faster; Made my skin a little bit thicker; Makes me that much smarter” (Christina Aguilera, Fighter, 2002).  We reflect on how we went from workaholic deputies who strived for perfection towards a more flexible and balanced approach to work.  It’s amazing how efficient you can be when you have less time for the unnecessary.  Work expands to fill the time you’ve got.  And when you’re sleep deprived, the nursery won’t have your vomiting bundle, and your partner can’t take time off work – because, well because they’re a man, and the pub and motorway maintenance trades are still so masculine and manly, and ‘the missus just works part-time in a school’ (like it’s a hobby!) – you will be forced to prioritise and see the work for what it is. Then you will amaze yourself at the pace you can work to accomplish the essential.  Done is better than perfect.  And besides, you won’t be able to work until midnight anymore because you’ll be snoring into a Julia Donaldson picture book by 8pm or sterilising your breast pump for the next day at work.  Coffee and Calpol get you through days like that.  The rest of the time it’s surprisingly manageable, and of course we had the benefits of working part-time and having each other as wingmen (Maverick & Goose).

We know fantastic parents who work full time in more traditional school leadership roles and make it work.  We also know that if this isn’t for you, different is possible.  Leadership can be reshaped and redefined to better meet the needs of modern day educators and their lifestyles.  You may have to fight to achieve a part-time leadership role initially, but it can be done and it doesn’t make you less of a leader.

Indeed, we have found there are two situations which are most likely to bring out your inner tiger: the labour ward and an Ofsted inspection when it’s not going your way.  After our first-borns were welcomed into the world and we had returned back to work, somewhat transformed but still finding our feet as first time mothers, we had the pleasure of our first Ofsted.  We had been back to our coheadship for 14 working days when we got the call in November 2011.  We were told fairly briskly, in both the initial phone call and the first meeting, that the inspection team were coming into the school with the assumption that leadership was a weakness because of the change in headship arrangement and the fact we had both been on maternity leave.

We felt this could not be right.  Surely?  We argued that this was an outdated assumption and that it was discriminatory to suggest this before they had even seen the school, but there it was.  And then the Aguilerian fighting spirit came in at the end of day one, when we told it was not looking ‘Good’.  We rallied.  We fought.  We pooled all our energy and resources and eventually got the ‘Good’ we knew the school and the staff deserved.

Ofsted 2015 was a very different experience.  One day, one inspector.  3 out of 4 of the Senior Leadership were pregnant this time round, but we had experience on our side.  We laughed about how outnumbered he was to our tag team of two and warned him we had the same fighting spirit as Leicester City,  who in November 2015 were surprising the world with their as yet unrealised fairy-tale ending.  We didn’t bother to mention that we were both pregnant as we didn’t want it to be used against us.  With bumps hidden by big scarves and baggy cardigans, we were ready for anything.

Yet we could not have asked for a more supportive inspection or a more human inspector who cared about education in the same way we cared about our school.  And in many ways that sums up our message – for every hard day in leadership, or teaching, or parenthood, there are days of true joy that make your heart sing when you know you are doing something right in the role you have been called to.  Laugh (Hale & Pace), celebrate (Patsy & Edina), focus on the good times (Tess & Claudia) and as the motivational poster says, ‘never let anyone dull your sparkle’.

We came into headship at the point where huge changes were coming into force at a rate of knots: the rise of academies, the scrapping of levels, frequent changes to Ofsted frameworks and curriculum expectations, the new style SATs, performance related pay, cuts to funding, and increasing pressure on schools to sort societal and health problems of young people and their families due to cuts in other public service areas.  We saw great colleagues opting for early retirement, warning us that in their entire careers as heads they had never seen change at such at pace.  Our twoness got us through all of this.  When one of us was flagging, feeling jaded or outraged, the other was there to encourage, give perspective or bring calm.  Other colleagues provided huge support over the years for which we will be eternally grateful, but to actually share the role, the responsibilities and the pressures of such a big job, made it not only more manageable, but also more enjoyable.

The DfE’s ‘Teacher recruitment and retention strategy’ released in January 2019 recognises the need to retain the talent of teachers who, “…leave or choose not to return to teaching because they cannot access part-time or other flexible working opportunities”.  The force of WomenEd and ‘10% braver’ is encouraging women “to assume roles of influence throughout our education system”.  The flexibility of coheadship meant that we could carry on with school leadership, which we now loved and felt compelled to do, without compromising on family life.  Over the years we worked various numbers of days each to suit our family needs and the needs of the school.  Our forward-thinking governing body and LA supported this to make it work.  Indeed, at the school today staff retention is excellent and almost three quarters of our teachers are either part-time or have indicated that they would like to adjust their working hours in the near future.  Flexible working is hugely important and possible in teaching, and this does not preclude leadership roles.

When we turned up to BrewEd Herts ‘19 we didn’t know what to expect, with a slideshow full of our kids and other close female friends who make teaching work for them and their families.  What we found was a room full of support and love; people who care about the profession and are changing it for the better.  In that room – with the optimism of Rae Snape, the hilarity of Ros Wilson, the wisdom and humanity of Dr Emma Kell, Neil Jones, Adrian Bethune and Carly Waterman, the vigour of Pran Patel, the true grit and celebrity of Ross McGill, the might of Dame Alison Peacock and Sam Twiselton OBE, and so many other amazing voices – you began to realise there are forces for positive change out there and the tide might just be turning.

And that is why we will be BrewEd-ing again in June and excited to attend our first WomenEd event in Leicester on 6th July.  We would love you to join us.

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