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Conditions are the key to discontent

Paul Fisher finds money is not everything as headships go unfilled in the wake of funding curbs and staff cuts.

Evidence is accumulating that more and more headteachers are quitting early, and that their posts are harder to fill as fewer candidates put themselves forward for interview.

The National Association of Headteachers says four out of five heads are opting for early retirement and that its officers are fielding enquiries from members who feel burned out in their forties. The Teachers' Pensions Agency recently revealed a three-fold increase in heads retiring early since 1990, and the Local Government Management Board's latest submission to the Government's pay review body noted a decline in the applications for headships.

Researchers at Oxford Brookes University do an annual analysis of job adverts in The TES, a reasonable monitor of the market because all headships must, by law, be advertised. This year's findings show that difficulties in recruiting heads persist throughout England and Wales, and that on many occasions - particularly in London primaries - governors must readvertise up to a third of headteacher vacancies. What is good for this paper's advertising revenue is less good news for schools which must also face the disruption of lengthy handover periods.

This evidence speaks of problems rather than a crisis and all observers - the NAHT and pensions people, LEA officers and academics - want to alert government to widespread disillusionment with the nature of the job. Pay used to be the problem but now, aside from the small differentials between deputies and heads, conditions are making the top jobs look less and less attractive.

But money first. The scale is from Pounds 23,055 to Pounds 52,l52 and an NAHT salaries official gives two examples: a primary head with 350 pupils earns between Pounds 26,457 and Pounds 27,585, and a secondary head with 600-800 pupils but no sixth form gets between Pounds 36,030 and Pounds 45,98l. The top of the normal range is Pounds 52,l52 although, for a prime example of governors using their discretion to pay more, Holland Park comprehensive advertised a Pounds 60,000 headship last term.

John Howson, the author of Oxford Brookes' survey, says: "During the Eighties boom, pay lagged behind comparable private-sector jobs. The introduction of new pay scales for headteachers and deputies in late 1990 removed the former fixed points associated with the size of a school. This coincided with a dramatic fall in the level of secondary school headships needing to be readvertised. "

Brian Fuller, the NAHT's London regional officer, says that salaries are not the big issue. His area is where the number of readvertised jobs has increased most sharply and he blames three factors: conditions, conditions and conditions. "It's isolation. Since the new authorities were set up in 1990, there's been less support as funding for advisers is withdrawn; it's the Parent's Charter, it's schools having to cope with special needs children. "

Problems approach a crisis in London primaries, with a third unable to fill headships at first time of asking. Mr Fuller identifies heavy burdens of office. Primary heads have been the curriculum leaders who have borne the brunt of constant revisions to the national curriculum. At the same time, local management of schools has made them more desk-bound.

Unlike their secondary counterparts, primary headteachers normally cannot afford to delegate administration to bursars and non-teaching deputies. Throw in the need to make cuts in a school full of poor children and the job can become intolerable.

Churchill said that "headmasters have power at their disposal with which prime ministers have never yet been invested". Not any more. Although many staff see their heads as little Hitlers, that's not how the job seems from behind the big desk. There are rumblings against teacher and governor power. An ex-head from London has a gentle grizzle at having "to nurse well-meaning but clueless governors into their responsibilities". The NAHT is dealing with a record number of head vs governor disputes.

In Harrogate next May, George Varnava, this year's NAHT president, will use his conference speech to "call for a clearer definition of the roles and responsibilities of governors". He will frame this as a debate about control rather than using the language of a power struggle. "Duties are unclear, " he says. "There is ambiguity about budget management, curriculum delivery and appointment of staff. If day-to-day decisions do not belong to the head, then the head cannot be held fully responsible."

Many teachers are less than anxious to leave their classroom to occupy a power vacuum. Deputies who might once have considered themselves automatic promotion prospects withdraw from the fray. They say they're put off by money as well as stress. "The difference in salary wouldn't keep me in the Paracetamol I'd need," says one deputy who will avoid the headaches of ambition. "Why should I take on all that aggravation for l0 per cent more money?" asks the parent-shy deputy. "I've looked at a lot of heads and I don't want to end up like them."

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