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A crisis of faith

In an increasingly godless society it has become a struggle to find believers to lead Catholic schools. Anat Arkin reports

Catholic schools are redoubling their efforts to attract senior managers, but the headteacher recruitment crisis gripping their sector shows no signs of easing.

Of the 34 Roman Catholic schools that advertised for heads in January this year, 14 (41 per cent) have had to re-advertise so far. If this trend continues, this year could be as bad as 2001-2, when a record 58 per cent of headships in Catholic schools were re-advertised, according to Education Data Surveys, which monitors head vacancies.

The schools seem to find it easier to attract deputy heads but in some areas even this is a struggle. One primary in south-east England has advertised for a deputy three times since last autumn without attracting suitable candidates.

Its head says the high cost of living is a factor but admits the need to be a practising Catholic is probably also a deterrent. "Religion is not very fashionable these days and the number of Catholic training colleges has gone down over the years, so we have limited numbers coming forward," he said.

In a bid to improve recruitment, the Catholic Education Service has set up a working group to look at how schools could be more welcoming to members of the faith working in non-Catholic schools. The service is also trying to counter what its director, Oona Stannard, calls "erroneous" assumptions, including the idea that schools will not appoint divorcees as heads.

"Obviously the head of a Catholic school is the leader not just of the school community but also of a faith community, so they need to be able to uphold those values," she said. "But being divorced is not necessarily an obstacle to that. It's the lifestyle that the person is in now that would be significant."

The CES expects all heads and deputies to be practising Catholics. But diocesan authorities struggling to recruit Catholic heads are being forced to look for other solutions. In some cases they are appointing non-Catholics on short-term contracts, under the guidance of a Catholic head at a neighbouring school - setting up what is effectively a federation of schools.

The Portsmouth diocese is exploring the idea of some sort of federation between its five primaries and one middle school on the Isle of Wight.

Stressing that discussions are at an early stage, Sister Mary Jo Martin, diocesan director of education, said: "We are looking at innovative ways in which schools can work more closely in partnership." The diocese is also training aspiring heads, she added.

Birmingham is another diocese trying to grow its own heads. The Catholic Primary Partnership provides in-service training for staff at the dozens of Catholic primaries in the city and runs a support group to prepare deputies for headship.

The crisis is not confined to England and Wales. In the United States, an acute shortage of teachers in Catholic schools has prompted 13 universities to offer free masters in education courses to graduates willing to teach in them for two years.

Scottish Catholic schools also face staff shortages as teachers retire. A recent report by the Scottish Executive estimated that 1,390 new primary and 1,175 Catholic secondary teachers would be needed in the next seven years if the schools were to preserve their distinct ethos.

However, headteachers do not seem to be in such short supply in Scotland.

Michael McGrath, chairman of the Catholic Education Commission and head of Our Lady's high school in Cumbernauld, near Glasgow, says that while the number of applicants has declined, the situation is no worse than in secular schools.

"There are significant numbers of Catholic deputes and assistant heads coming forward to undertake the Scottish Qualification for Headship," he said.

The National College for School Leadership, which oversees the equivalent qualification for England, says the proportion of church-school staff wanting to train as heads has increased over the past two years from 20 to 24 per cent of all new starters. But it is not known how many of these candidates are from Catholic schools.

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