Too happy being number two


The national shortage of headteachers grows as fewer deputies want the stresses of the top job.

Paul Dixon was so optimistic back in June. As chair of governors he had just put the finishing touches to the advertisement for a new headteacher. Children on the school council were writing interview questions, eager for the chance to grill the candidates.

But nine months on, George Tomlinson primary school in Leytonstone, east London, has not found a leader and Dixon's confident mood has turned to one of quiet desperation.

The problems here highlight what is all too apparent nationally: too many teachers have lost their appetite for the top job. A third of headteacher jobs are now readvertised and one in five schools are without a permanent head. The job description of headteacher, and the leadership ladder within primary schools' structure are proving not fit for purpose.

At George Tomlinson, the interim head is costing 30% more than a permanent one, with more than £30,000 per annum spent on recruitment agency fees. Improvements to the school building have stalled, staff morale is "a problem" and priorities for development identified by the last Ofsted inspection are not being addressed during the hiatus in leadership.

The governors have now re-advertised twice, averaging two or three "low standard" responses each time. The phone only started ringing when they placed an advert for the deputy role. Dixon did his best to convince candidates to apply for the headship. "Something is clearly going wrong when many deputies with more than five years' experience simply don't want to apply for headship," he says.

So why do so few people with the requisite experience want to lead the school? Dixon has a theory: "I wonder if the school is neither sufficiently good, nor bad, to attract the right candidate."

To achieve wider recognition as a headteacher, your school needs to show improvements in performance. This is measured largely by results and movement up the league tables. It is easier to make a difference to a school at rock bottom, or maintain the progress of one that is highly achieving; to make a significant difference at a middling school is far harder.

"I feel the job description and role of the head is going to have to change," says Cassie Moss, deputy headteacher at St Luke's church of England primary school in Old Street, east London. Moss has a clearer view of the headteacher role than most, following a year sharing an office with her headteacher.

"The role is too vast, too pressurised and challenging, both emotionally and professionally," she says. "Too much is about Sats, ticking boxes, finding evidence and the endless, often pointless, paperwork. That conflicts with doing what is right for the children. Is it worth the stress?"

"The responsibility of the job is daunting," agrees Eddie Payne, who was head of George White middle school in Norwich for 13 years. "It's accountability in all aspects. I had one experience - a school trip that nearly went wrong - that brought home how much you're existing on a knife edge."

Payne has watched as schools have become more management oriented. Even at classroom level, teachers have responsibilities for managing support staff, a curriculum area and a budget. "They are experiencing what it's like to be a manager. It's stressful and it's making people question if they want to be top dog."

More career options and more money are available to teachers now. You don't need to be a head. The most experienced primary teachers can earn around £40,000, and talented teachers can be promoted to be advanced skills teachers with salaries from £32,000 to more than £50,000. An inner-city deputy's salary is around £45,000; an inner-city primary head's around £55,000 (although larger salaries are increasingly common). For some deputies the differential is not worth it.

The deputy role is still the main route to headship, and by not filling the headship vacancies they are also blocking the route for ambitious teachers below them. "Sitting tenants" is the phrase coined by headteacher Tony Hayes to describe this phenomenon, and in a study for the National College of School Leadership (NCSL), Hayes found that in one local education authority just 22 out of 87 deputies were actively seeking headship.

Payne experienced this problem firsthand as he prepared to retire. His deputy did not want the headship, and he created the role of assistant headteacher for Paul Stanley, a senior member of staff, in order to give him the necessary experience. It worked, and Stanley succeeded him as head. Despite this grooming, Stanley believes "nothing can prepare you" for the responsibility and expectation that falls on the headteacher's shoulders. "I'm social worker, legal expert, administrator, caretaker, decorator, chauffeur, drain unblocker and toilet-roll replenisher," he explains. "But it's a lovely job at times."

The recruitment difficulties create a "very worrying situation", according to says John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Fewer teachers than ever want to take on headships, heads are spending less time in post, and deputies are either deciding against headship or stalling their move until later in their career. With a retirement bulge in the pipeline (more than half the teaching profession is now over 50) the situation is unsustainable.

So what can be done to grow the leaders of tomorrow? One thing is to promote the fact that, despite the workload, there is a lot of joy to be had in running a school. "The years I did as a headteacher were the best," says Payne. "If you've got a good staff and the right ethos, it's a massive buzz."

Firsthand experience
The challenge, then, is to separate the negative preconceptions of the headteacher role from the reality. This involves giving deputies more firsthand experiences shadowing and acting for headteachers, opportunities to work in different schools, and support in developing the confidence and skills to deal with aspects of the role normally out of the deputy's orbit, such as setting a budget.

Also crucial is increasing flexibility. "You have the power, if you take the initiative, to find alternative ways to make the job work for you," says Paul Whitcombe, co-head at Lord Scudamore primary in Hereford. Whitcombe shares the headteacher role and still teaches literacy to a year 6 class. "You can get totally enveloped in this job, but having two of you keeps it in perspective," he says.

Changes are under way to models of leadership. Federations and networks of schools are emerging, and some schools are using flatter and more distributed leadership structures. The education bill promises greater flexibility, with schools able to formalise relationships with other partners, for example with groups of other schools or businesses.

But professor Alan Smithers, who heads the centre for education and employment research at the University of Buckingham, believes the answer lies in even bolder reorganisation: the government should distinguish between primary and secondary schools, and federate groups of primaries under one administrative leadership. "We would have campuses of different schools and the headteacher could get on with teaching." Recruitment into initial teacher training is at buoyant levels. If we want these new teachers to develop into leaders, perhaps the key is to stop expecting headteachers to be able to walk on water, and remember that the word "teacher" is still in the job title.