Recruitment of secondary heads is better than it has been for seven years - and finding people to lead inner-London schools is easier than ever, new figures reveal.
But the statistics show that primaries are still dogged by an ongoing recruitment crisis.
Data collected by John Howson, a leading recruitment analyst, suggest pay differentials between classroom teachers and heads in some rural primaries can be as little as pound;6,000, providing little incentive to seek promotion.
More than a third (37 per cent) of the 2,100 primaries that advertised for a head last year failed to find the right person first time around. This is the fourth year in a row that this has been the case.
Only a quarter of secondary posts had to be readvertised, compared with a peak of 36 per cent two years ago.
But Professor Howson warned that despite the brighter picture, today's levels in secondary are not as good as they were a decade ago, when they stood at 17 per cent. "The need for a quarter of secondary schools to readvertise cannot be considered satisfactory," he said.
The improvement in secondaries has been attributed to various factors, including more people taking the national professional qualification for headship (NPQH), which all new heads must hold, and schemes co-ordinated by the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) to nurture potential in schools.
The report said the job market had not yet shown the anticipated "significant surge" in posts generated through headteacher retirements, which the NCSL expects to peak in 2009. High numbers of retirements in recent years may have brought this forward, spreading it over a greater number of years than predicted.
Last year, 39 per cent of schools in inner London advertising for new heads failed to find one at the first attempt - the lowest figure since 1998 and an improvement of a fifth on 200506.
The success rate, which brings the region into line with the rest of the South East, has been attributed to better pay, the improved image of London's schools and the efforts of church dioceses to improve recruitment.
A typical primary head in inner London now earns pound;63,000 per annum while secondary heads earn around pound;100,000. There are also now 20 academies that have the flexibility to pay more.
But the overall figures for England and Wales mask a huge discrepancy between primary and secondary schools in the provinces.
The East region, which has a high number of rural primaries in an expensive area, had a record number of schools advertising for posts more than once: 46 per cent.
The North West is also suffering, with nearly the same number of schools failing to find a head with the first advertisement. The analysis, by Education Data Surveys, concludes that this is due to difficulties in recruiting to Roman Catholic schools.
Recruitment to Catholic schools improved slightly overall, with levels of readvertisement dropping from 58 per cent to 55 per cent, but today's report said this may have been due to efforts made in London rather than elsewhere.
Phil Revell, chief executive of the National Governors' Association, said the improvements in secondary schools were due to governors' "wising up" to recruitment procedures, thinking about the package on offer as well as the job advert.
In primaries, he said, governors tended to be less experienced at recruiting generally. They should plan well in advance, he said.
"If you have a lively young head, they could easily be poached," he said. "No one should assume they will be there in five years' time."
The NCSL believes the answer to primary head recruitment could lie in school federations, which have department heads operating across a number of schools.
The Yewlands Family of Schools in Sheffield is made up of five primary schools, a special school and a secondary. Key roles, such as director of music, operate across all the federated schools, helping those in certain posts to develop more sophisticated leadership skills than they would if they were working in an individual school.
Chris Kirk, director of succession planning at the NCSL, said: "The idea is to grow leaders from within primaries, and this is a good way of doing it."
- 23rd Annual Survey of Senior Staff Appointment in Schools in England and Wales is available from today at www.educationdatasurveys.org.uk
Thomas Alleyne's High School in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, is a healthy comprehensive achieving good grades and good Ofsted reports.
When the head left in July after 14 years, the governors had no idea how hard it would be to replace him. They shortlisted two experienced heads from eight applicants, but still failed to find the right person.
Phil Revell, chief executive of the National Governors' Association, said: "A good school is intimidating for a headteacher candidate. Potentially, it can only go downhill."
Alleyne's readvertised a term later but then found the perfect candidate in Suzanne O'Farrell, the deputy head.
Mrs O'Farrell, 43, is paid pound;73,000 to manage 170 staff and 1,400 pupils - not enough of an incentive for other heads to move schools.
"I didn't always think I wanted to be a head - I wasn't that ambitious," she said. "But it was this school. I'd been here for 12 years and I could see a way forward for the school."
The National College for School Leadership expects the head shortage to worsen in the next few years.
John Kenny, Thomas Alleyne's chair of governors, said: "I'm just glad our head went when he did and didn't hang on for another couple of years."
Drive from Cornwall a capital result
Keith Howdle discovered the delights of inner-London leadership somewhat late in life. After years as head of a Cornish primary, he was lured to the bright lights of London at the age of 53. He took up his fifth headship four and a half years ago. His experience was exactly what The Learning Trust in Hackney was looking for.
The job at Sebright Primary School in Hackney, which was then in special measures, seemed like just the challenge he needed - a final "hurrah" before contemplating an easier life.
The cultural attractions of London were also alluring to Mr Howdle (pictured left) and his wife. They were more used to the delights of rural fresh air than opera and art galleries within easy reach.
The school has just been judged by Ofsted as "good with outstanding features" and Mr Howdle has decided to "retire" at the end of the summer term, aged 58.
He will stay on, he hopes, to work as an adviser in Hackney. His governors are already working on recruiting his successor.
"The job really lived up to my expectations," he said. "There were huge challenges, but the support I received was excellent, the pay is good and it has been really stimulating and exciting. From a personal point of view, too, London has been great.
"The social element has been very good as we have everything on our doorstep, from theatre to exhibitions. It's also very good for conferences and the like as they are often held here."
He will, of course, find it a little hard to leave the school, to which he has become attached, but he has faith in his governing body to find a suitable replacement.
"I care a lot about who takes over the job," Mr Howdle said.
Success at last on a rural roller-coaster
An estate agent advertising Culmstock Primary School would describe it as an attractive and historic building in a supportive community, in the idyllic setting between Devon's coast and moors.
But for a recruitment agent, the 99-pupil school would be a much harder proposition. The rural school has been forced to interview potential headteachers three times in three years - a stark example of the difficulty in recruiting primary heads.
When Heather Admore announced that she would be leaving in July 2005, the governors could attract only eight applicants. But on the morning of the interviews there was only one left after withdrawals.
Mrs Admore agreed to stay on for one more term, Culmstock advertised again and received 18 applications. But the successful candidate was taken ill and left after 11 months, so the post was readvertised.
In July 2007, Cathy Noble (pictured left in red jacket with chair of governors Fiona Collier) was appointed headteacher on a salary of under pound;40,000 and - fortunately for the school - has no plans to leave as results and morale have improved.
On her first day, stress and sickness meant just one of the 12 staff was present. "All the changes meant that people were very unhappy," said Mrs Noble. "The pupils weren't working well, results had gone into a lull and staff morale was poor.
"The pressures on a head in a small school are just as big as those in a big school, but you don't have the support."