Personally Speaking: It's a thankless job - who'd be a head?

A headteacher explains why his peers are leaving school
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The exodus of headteachers from our schools and the reluctance of suitably qualified candidates to step into their shoes must be of serious concern to David Blunkett, the new Secretary of State for Education and Employment. He readily acknowledges that headteachers are crucial to raising standards but rather than standing four-square alongside him many of them are turning their backs and looking to leave the teaching profession altogether. What has gone wrong and what can be done to improve matters?

There is little doubt that heads have been dragged down by what Tim Brighouse, the director of education for Birmingham and joint vice-chairman of the Government's new standards task force, calls "the mind-boggling, stress- inducing bureaucracy that deforms school life". One needs only to consider the health and safety risk assessment forms that need to be completed for every nook and cranny of the school buildings to see how things have progressed. In our decrepit, under-resourced schools this is proving a real source of anxiety for headteachers.

Since the early Nineties the extra responsibilities arising from the delegation of budgets directly to schools has proved hard work for many heads, particularly those in primary schools who do not have adequate finance officer support. Heads are responsible for ensuring that all financial transactions are conducted properly and severely criticised if they are not.

Budgetary delegation was meant to free schools from the restrictions imposed by local education authorities but in many schools the much heralded freedom has never emerged because funding has been so limited. Too many schools have had to confront the stark truth that, under present funding, the only way to gain room for manoeuvre within the budget is to make teachers redundant or not replace those leaving for other reasons. That places much pressure on headteachers, who often find themselves accused of not being able to manage a budget.

The enormous amount of educational legislation in recent years has also left heads bewildered and anxious about what they have to remember. When it comes to central government stipulating the fine detail of what must be included in school prospectuses we can begin to realise just what an intricate jigsaw puzzle headteachers are having to put together. It is doubtful if any head teacher in the land can put hand across heart and swear that they are not breaking the law in any way.

Ofsted inspectors have consistently identified the fact that headteachers are not systematically monitoring and evaluating what is taking place in their classrooms. Too much is taken on trust and what is now being advised is that heads move out of their offices into the classrooms to encourage and act as the "critical friend". All very good if they can find the time away from their other "essential" work.

The extra workload that heads have had to deal with over the past decade has not seen a concomitant rise in pay. The last government stipulated that headteacher pay rises should be funded from within a school's delegated budget. But if those budgets pay only for the essentials then the only reward for the head is a smile and the occasional pat on the back. More serious for morale are the large discrepancies that are arising between the salaries of heads in similar schools. Some have managed to wheedle inordinate salaries out of their governors while other have received not an extra penny. Headteacher salaries must be reviewed soon if morale is not to sink lower.

The relationship with governing bodies is often a source of stress for headteachers. Many resent having to give governors "on-the-job" training about the education system so that they can help with the running of their schools.

The now all-embracing nature of the headteacher's role requires great energy and physical and mental resilience. The hours are long and family life often has to take a back seat. Headteachers feel increasingly lonely and isolated as the support of the local education authority has gradually diminished with successive cutbacks and competitive league tables have set school against school.

But by far the single most important factor contributing to the headteacher exodus is the hostility that has been directed at teachers and their work. Unless Mr Blunkett can ensure that the "enthusiasm and hope" that he says currently exists is fed through to headteachers then the future is bleak.

The writer is headteacher of a south London comprehensive.