The Government has turned schools into England Education plc, leaving headteachers like chief executives nervously watching their company's performance, said Professor Alan Smithers.
The study shows nearly 30 per cent of secondary heads think vulnerability to sacking due to poor results is the factor most likely to deter teachers from the job. A quarter of secondary heads said the job was too big for one person.
But the research suggests that the role is even more unattractive to primary teachers. Three quarters of heads who identified staff as having leadership potential said they were not attracted to the post.
Many said the salary difference was not enough to deal with the endless initiatives and stress.
The General Teaching Council has predicted that by 2011, schools will be unable to fill 40 per cent of vacant headships.
Professor Smithers, director of education and employment research at the University of Buckingham, said the Government's methods to make headship more manageable did not get to the heart of the problem.
The professor, who carried out the research with Dr Pamela Robinson, told a National Union of Teachers' conference on headship this week: "The key question is, do the present difficulties in recruiting headteachers for maintained schools require radical changes such as recruiting from outside the profession, federating schools and new forms of leadership, or is it mainly a matter of addressing what is currently putting off potential headteachers from applying?"
Fiona Long, aged 29, a Cambridge graduate and secondary head of department, welcomed Professor Smithers's comments.
She said: "From the start of my career, I wanted to be a head as I thought it was where I could really make a difference. But when I watch headteachers in action now, it all seems to be about PR, target-driven initiatives and ticking all the right boxes. It has completely put me off as nothing the head seems to do now is for the benefit of the children."
Joy Hardy, aged 48, was made headteacher of Queniborough primary in Leicestershire at Christmas, after filling in for the head who was off due to personal problems. She said: "I thought I enjoyed working with children too much to consider it before, but when I had a taster as acting head I found I really liked it."
She now works much longer hours than she did as a deputy, and she has only climbed two points on the pay scale (pound;2,061), but she says it does not bother her.
She said: "I've been at the school for 13 years and have a strong emotional attachment. I enjoy the contact with parents and I discipline myself into not working ridiculous hours." But she agreed that it was the fear of accountability that was putting many teachers off applying.
Professor John Howson, an expert on headteacher recruitment, said problems were not just related to the attractiveness of the job itself. He said recruitment varied regionally, with high house prices adding to the problem in London and the south-west.
He played down a crisis in the sector, but said special schools and primaries were the worst off.
* The University of Buckingham research, 'School Headship: Present and Future', is available at: www.buckingham.ac.ukeducationresearchceerpublications.html
Leader, page 26
Views of a deputy, page 26