EDUCATION: Don’t lose your head — a new one is hard to find

02 November 2006

GOOD headteachers make good schools. This truism is repeated in a plethora of education research and reports, the most recent published last month by the National Audit Office. During a House of Lords debate on the latest education White Paper, Lady Shephard — a former Education Secretary who was once a schools inspector — made a similar contention. "The quality of leadership and teaching in a school, and, above all, the calibre of the head, are what most influence the quality of a school," she told the House.

But almost simultaneously, the 21st annual survey of senior staff appointments in England and Wales was carried out by Professor John Howson, an expert in teacher supply. It confirmed, as it has in recent years, that headteachers are increasingly in short supply.

Moreover, the report revealed, the position worsened during 2005, particularly for secondary schools. For the first time, more than a third of all schools had to advertise headships more than once. And 2005 also saw a record £70,000 salary offered for a primary headship in London.

"The levels recorded represent a labour market that is in some state of crisis," the report says. Those most likely to re-advertise were church schools, schools in London, and small schools in rural areas. Given that London and Southwark dioceses have 251 schools between them, and half of all small schools are C of E foundations, it is clear that the Church has a particular problem.

Roman Catholic schools are in the most parlous position: almost six in ten schools are unable to appoint after one advertisement. The strict rules, which insist on RC school heads being practising Catholics, restrict the pool from which their governors can recruit.

For Church of England schools, requirements are more elastic. For many headships, while practising Anglicans are preferred, a general Christian commitment or even just

a willingness to support the ethos of the school is accepted. Nevertheless, 44 per cent of all C of E schools seeking a headteacher last year had to advertise at least twice.

Professor Howson knows of schools that needed five advertisements to find a head. The situation is familiar to Canon Peter Hartley, Chelmsford diocesan director of education. A small church school just outside Chelmsford advertised five times for a new head before an appointment was made. "In the end it was a very good appointment — but it took time," he said.

According to Canon Hartley, a number of factors deter people from applying for headships in small schools. Because salaries are based on size, heads of small schools often earn less than deputies in larger schools, but still have to cope with expanding administration. At the same time they have to cover for teachers who now have mandatory time out of the classroom for planning and preparation.

David Etherton, head of St Peter’s C of E Primary, Cowfold, West Sussex, has been running the school in neighbouring Bolney village since September, as well as his own, while Bolney’s governors hunt for a head.

Mr Etherton agrees that potential heads are put off applying for small schools because the differential between their pay and that of classroom teachers does not match the extra responsibility. Moreover, he says, improved conditions of work for teachers put extra burdens on the head. "In small schools there is no deputy to whom you can delegate responsibility, and many people feel the extra pay is just not worth the extra work," he says.

A new head for Bolney will start at Easter, but Mr Etherton estimates he will still work from 7.30 to 6, Monday to Thursday — he tries to leave at 4 on Fridays — with at least one evening each week given over to meetings. At 35, and with three young children, he earns an unspectacular £40,000 a year.

A committed Christian, Etherton says: "For me teaching is a vocation, not a career." Before taking up his present job he had always worked in community schools, and is delighted with the extra support he receives from Chichester diocese. "I think Christians in community schools should investigate what church schools have to offer," he says.

While a mere two advertisements were needed to find Bolney’s new head, Chichester diocese, which has a handful of primaries with fewer than 40 pupils among its 169 schools, had to advertise five times to fill one headship. But the diocesan director of education, Jeremy Taylor, is optimistic about the future. "Though we often have to advertise more than once, we’re getting applications from young, lively teachers looking for their first headship — an encouraging trend."

Chichester runs intensive induction courses for new heads. Another initiative is tackling the issue of small schools by encouraging them to federate or form partnerships with other schools, including sharing one headteacher. Such partnerships give heads a better salary, and wider opportunities boost their careers, says Taylor.

IN the capital, as the Howson report underlines, the situation is at its worst. Advertisements for 16 primary headships last year attracted an average of only three applicants; five schools advertised twice or more. For most posts, only two applicants were interviewed. Tom Peryer, the diocesan director of education, says: "Ofsted assessments suggest we’re managing to maintain quality. Leadership in 80 per cent of our schools was judged good or better; so we’re not making second-rate appointments. But we’d be comfortable with greater choice."

St Michael’s C of E primary, Camden Town, north London, made local headlines when it advertised for the sixth time for a new head. The fact that 88 per cent of its pupils have a home language other than English, and almost 60 per cent receive free school meals, hint at the challenges it presents.

For Lynn Trigg, they were challenges she couldn’t resist. She was in her seventh year as head at the oversubscribed Hampstead Parochial School, and felt it was on a good footing. "I’d read research reports that showed heads were most effective in their first seven years in a job. I’d reached that point, and though I wasn’t looking for a change, I had to consider St Michael’s when it was suggested."

After a term dividing her time between Hampstead and Camden Town, she moved to her new school last month. While insisting that "they’re lovely children", she does

not play down the size of the task. The school’s inner-London circumstances boosted her salary to around £60,000, but she works a minimum 60-hour week. "We’re told about the important of work/home balance. It will be some time before I achieve that."

At 51, Mrs Trigg is young enough to give seven years to St Michael’s and take on another school after that. But the high number of heads nearing 60 will lead to a retirement boom over the next five years. Church schools, with proportionately more older heads, will be proportionately more affected. So what is being done to remedy the problem?

"We’re taking steps to ‘grow our own’," says Tom Peryer. His diocese runs courses in management and preparation for leadership, besides informally encouraging able teachers.

Dioceses across the country have similar strategies. The National College of School Leadership, responsible for the professional qualification that heads now need, has courses tailored towards church schools. Richard Jones, programme manager for the college, says: "We particularly want to encourage deputy heads and senior staff in church schools to take the qualification."fo

There are other, unofficial, initiatives like the Transforming Lives programme, which began last month, backed by the Sainsbury Trust. Aimed at persuading Christians to see teaching as a vocation, it has a brief wider than church schools. But its director, Dr Trevor Cooling, accepts that a bigger pool of Christian teachers will ease their problems. He believes the dearth of applicants for headships, generally, is because they face the possibility of high-profile failure. "They can be publicly failed, kicked out, closed down. We have to give them confidence."

The shortage of heads is a problem that needs a long-term solution, not a short-term fix, says Professor Howson. He says the seeds of the present crisis were sown 20 years ago when falling rolls in schools, the result of an earlier drop in the birth rate, led to too sharp a cutback in the number of teachers recruited for training. This is now happening again.

"We need to avoid another crisis 20 years on. The Government must ensure that when universities select trainee teachers now, they must have regard not just to those immediately needed for the classroom, but recruit the leaders necessary for tomorrow’s schools."


 David Etherton (above)  has been running St Peter's and a school in the neighbouring village

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