Lessons in ambition as more teachers aim for the top

Mr Chips says 'goodbye' and it's hello 'Waterloo Road' as thousands aspire to the head's job

The old image of teachers with leather patches on their elbows, happy to stay in the classroom is, it seems, a thing of the past. Teachers in the 21st century are an altogether more ambitious breed – anxious to get to the top job, according to research to be published tomorrow. It shows a 19 per cent increase in the numbers wanting to become heads in just the past year.

If the findings of the survey are mirrored across the country, that would mean 180,000 teachers seeking one of the 27,500 school headship posts in the country. One in 10 expects to achieve their ambition in three years.

So it may be a case of Goodbye Mr Chips, the elderly Latin scholar of the film of that name who only reluctantly became head in wartime, and hello Max from the BBC 1 series Waterloo Road, a go-getting "superhead" fired with ambition to turn a school round.

The research also shows that teachers as a body are more ambitious than those working in the private sector – with 41 per cent of them coveting a leadership role compared with just 31 per cent of those working in industry.

Those hungriest for the top job are teachers aged between 30 and 44, where nearly 49 per cent are aiming high. However, the biggest increase in the percentage showing ambition is in those aged between 45 and 54 – where the percentage has risen 48 per cent in a year.

The findings have come in time to defuse a demographic time bomb which means large numbers of teachers in their late fifties are due to retire in the next few years.

The rise in ambition has already had an effect on filling headship vacancies – the number of posts that have had to be re-advertised has fallen during the past year, according to researchers.

The research has been carried out by pollsters ICM for the newly set-up National College of Leadership for Schools and Children's Services, which says part of the reason may be the fact there are now courses available for training would-be heads that lead to a professional headship qualification. The percentage wanting to become heads is the highest in the three years the college has been surveying teachers.

Another factor, argue some, could be that the teaching profession is recruiting some of the brightest graduates who would otherwise have gone into industry but for the recession.

Asked their reasons for seeking headships, the majority of teachers (55 per cent) spoke of the examples of good leadership they had seen in heads they have served under. Other reasons were "being able to influence children's lives for the better" (40 per cent) and the job being "well respected" (32 per cent).

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents secondary school headteachers, said: "Headship is an immensely rewarding job. There are very few professions outside school leadership where one person can make a tangible difference to so many children's lives on a daily basis. I am very pleased that more teachers are aspiring to leadership positions."

Steve Munby, chief executive of the National College, added: "The development of the next generation of heads is of paramount importance. We know headship is challenging but rewarding, and it's encouraging to see so many teachers wanting to make a difference to the lives of children and young people."

A classroom career: 'Every day is different'

Sue Walker is in the age group that has seen the sharpest rise in the percentage of teachers wanting to become heads – 45- to 54-year-olds. She had just returned from looking round a school with a headship vacancy when I spoke to her.

"It's a lovely school and I'd like to put in an application," said Sue, 50, who is currently teaching at West Alverton Church of England primary school, Devon.

"Why wouldn't you want to be a head?" she said. "Every day is different and it's just so exciting to see pupils progress in their learning."

Sue admits she did not always want to be a head. "It's only in the last five years – I'd say – that I've wanted to." She has studied for and obtained a profession headship qualification.

"I think one of the reasons is the openness you get from heads who are now working, who encourage staff to apply," she said. "It is not just management and paper shuffling. I think it is seen as a good role to have. I'd like to become a head very soon."

Richard Garner