Head teacher: The job no one wants

Schools are having to advertise five or six times to find a head teacher. Peter Stanford finds out why
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The Independent Online

In theory there has never been a better time to be a head teacher. In the secondary sector, salaries have soared in recent years, with £100,000 packages not unusual for the larger urban schools, while Brent in north-west London recently advertised for a primary head at £90,000.

And it's not only more money that is on offer. The Government has given a lead in recognising heads as significant and respected community leaders by rewarding them with knighthoods, damehoods and other honours. If you then add in the high numbers of those entering the profession, thanks to advertising campaigns with the slogan, "Those who can, teach", there should be a sackload of applications for every headship vacancy.

Consider, then, the problems faced by Brookland School in Hampstead Garden Suburb, north London. This 300-plus-pupil infant and nursery school apparently has everything going for it: an excellent Ofsted report in November 2005; dedicated staff and involved parents; modern buildings including its own swimming pool; an idyllic setting next to a conservation area, tucked behind fir trees and alongside desirable Arts and Crafts-style houses.

Yet since the retirement of long-serving head Sheila Abbott last July, the governors have advertised five times for a replacement, offering up to £59,000, but are still looking for someone to fill the post. They have even used a head-hunting agency to help them make their ad more attractive. "The governors are astonished to be in this position," says Caroline Marcus, their chair. "Brookland's reputation is very strong. Families move into the catchment area to come here. We thought it would be someone's dream job".

Brookland's experience is not unusual. According to statistics published this month by the Oxford-based organisation Education Data Surveys, 29 per cent of all secondary schools have such a poor response to advertisements for head teachers that they have to repeat them. The figure rises to 36 per cent for primary schools. And faith schools are finding it even tougher. The readvertisement rate in Church of England schools is 40.5 per cent and goes up to 58 per cent in the Catholic sector.

The latest government initiative for addressing this crisis was last week's report from PricewaterhouseCoopers which suggested appointing businessmen and women as heads, while leaving the running of what goes on in classrooms to deputies. It is a proposal, based on the practice in some private schools, that divides the teaching profession. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) dismisses it as displaying a fundamental misunderstanding of what schools are about - namely education, not business.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), however, is more persuaded, especially if it means that those working in schools as bursars and business managers might, after attaining appropriate qualifications, be able to graduate to headships.

However, the report doesn't really tackle the key problem of why there are so few teachers willing to climb to the top of their career ladder. The first essential step in finding the answer, according to Professor John Howson of Education Data Surveys, is to identify where exactly the problems are occurring. Top of his list are small rural primary schools.

There are roughly 10,000 of these, all with fewer than 150 pupils. Because of the size of the roll, heads' salaries are low, often below the £40,000 mark. Yet the demands are high. The head will usually be required to teach and lead the school. While this may be seen by some teachers as a bonus - the chance to maintain one foot in the classroom at the same time as getting to run the place, an option not open to most heads in larger schools - most of those who do it describe the doubling up as a burden. For the responsibilities that go with headship don't get any less just because you have fewer children, and you rarely have a deputy or assistant head with whom to share the load.

Responsibilities is the word that comes up most often in diagnosing today's shortage of heads. Senior teachers just don't want to take on the extra commitments that come with headship. "There has been," says John Dunford, general secretary of ASCL, "a huge increase in the past few years in the responsibilities of head teachers and also in their accountability to an ever longer list of official bodies - from national government to local education authorities, to Ofsted, to the Health and Safety Executive, to the Learning and Skills Council, and so on.

"And with all this responsibility and accountability has come a much greater vulnerability. If you get a bad Ofsted, if something happens to a pupil, if mistakes are made, the bucks stops with the head and many, many more heads are now losing their jobs as a result."

Linked to the question of increased responsibilities is that of pay. Yes, everyone agrees that heads are being better rewarded, but so, too, are classroom teachers. And the pay differentials between being a senior classroom teacher, assistant or deputy head and taking on the top job can be small enough to make many think twice. "In the rural primaries," says Professor Howson, "you will often find a head being paid less than a deputy in a larger urban primary, where he or she need have no fear of the sack if something goes wrong."

"For all the improvements that have been made in heads' pay and status in society," agrees Kerry George of the NAHT, "the perception of the job among teachers is that it is a riskier undertaking than it has ever been. And if something goes wrong and you're forced out, your chances of ever getting another job are slight."

She also believes that imposing career expectations from the commercial sector on to the teaching profession can be a mistake. "There seems to be an assumption in government thinking," she reflects, "that every classroom teacher has a headteacher's baton in their knapsack. But that isn't why many people go into teaching and the whole way teacher training is set up has little to do with an expectation that you may one day end up as head."

Then consider that a much larger number of teachers - as high as a third according to some estimates - are entering the profession having already turned 30. They have precious little time, especially in secondary schools, to climb several rungs of the career ladder before they get to 40 - seen traditionally as the ideal time to start applying for headships. The recruitment crisis thus becomes even more understandable.

There has, in recent times, been the introduction of an obligatory course for all aspiring heads - the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH). But this can have the effect, Kerry George says, of putting off potential heads. There is a significant number of teachers who take the course, she reports, but decide against applying for headships. "Now that may be because they wouldn't be up to the job anyway, but in the past they would have gone forward and only found that out once they were in post. Some might even have grown into the role."

There is a particular recruitment problem in faith schools. St Anthony's Catholic Primary in Fareham, Hampshire, had to advertise five times over eight months before it could appoint a new head. Three of the advertisements attracted no applicants. On the other side of the Solent, Archbishop King Catholic Middle School in Newport, Isle of Wight, struggled to recruit and eventually found a new head by agreeing to share one with a nearby Anglican college.

"Catholic heads are expected to be the spiritual leaders of their school as well as [carrying out] all their other responsibilities," says Joe Hughes, head teacher of English Martyrs School in Hartlepool and a spokesperson for the Catholic Association of Teachers, Schools and Colleges. "And that can put potential applicants off." There are, for example, many practising Catholics who see a distinction between their private beliefs and promoting the official line of their church in public as the head of a Catholic school. So while several Catholic primaries in the archdiocese of Westminster have had trouble finding a head in recent years, a number of church-going Catholics are heads of non-denominational or Anglican schools in the same area.

But if suitable Catholic candidates are more reluctant than in the past to take on the "faith leader" role that goes with headship in Catholic schools, then it is equally often the governors who are obliged to turn down those who would willingly embrace it but who are ruled out because of personal circumstances.

While there is a logic in Catholic schools refusing to have non-Catholics as heads because of fears that such a move would inevitably dilute the special ethos, it is harder to defend the number of practising Catholics who are ruled out of contention because they have chosen, in good faith, to live with their partners before marriage, or who have been divorced despite the church's teaching on the sanctity of marriage, or who are openly gay.

The growing backlog of vacancies doesn't seem to be prompting the church authorities to give governors any more discretion in overlooking such personal circumstances when making appointments.

There is a danger when reflecting on the current shortage, warns John Dunford, that all the positive work that has been done in recent years on enhancing the status of head teachers is being undermined by a perception that such a role is no longer tenable. His solution would be a simple one - a renewed and loud emphasis not on the drawbacks of headship but on the positive aspects. "I believe there is a very strong moral purpose in headship," he says, having spent 16 years as a head, "and that this moral purpose is entirely in line with the reasons why most teachers come into the profession in the first place.

"And that means that despite all the pressures there remains in headship the potential for huge job satisfaction in creating life opportunities for young people. For me, it is the best job, and I wish we could hear a few more people saying it."

Who'll work in the South-west?

For any ambitious young teacher wanting to progress in their career and swap the urban landscape for glorious rural surroundings, the small town of Launceston in central Cornwall might at first glance seem ideal. But two local primary schools there have so far clocked up 10 national advertisements between themselves in an increasingly desperate effort to find new head teachers. At Coads Green Primary, there has been a vacancy since last April after the previous incumbent, Kathleen Jarrett, moved on. With just 62 on the roll, the head would also have a part-time teaching role and would lead a staff of three full-timers and six part-time teaching assistants. The salary starts at £38,600. The problem, the school reports, hasn't been a lack of applicants, but rather a lack of suitable ones. At nearby South Petherwin Community Primary, with 96 on the roll, the wait for a replacement for departing head Jayne Harding has lasted even longer with, so far, six rounds of advertising for the £39,600 post. The record for readvertising, according to Professor John Howson was achieved in the 1980s by a Catholic primary at Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire which tried 16 times over two years to find a new head. It subsequently closed.