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Desperately seeking headteachers

Anne Pearson is a former primary head in Scotland and is now a senior consultant with the Hay Group

Followers of our national football squad have long argued that a team is only as good as its leader - or at least that a team's performance owes much to the person at the helm. The best leaders motivate, inspire, manage, encourage and develop. Without that input, standards can drop and performance flounder.

Headteachers provide the schools under their stewardship with essential focus and direction. However, in education as in every sector, public or private, concern is growing over succession. As the present generation of heads retires, research suggests there will be insufficient numbers of new headteachers ready to replace them.

The Headteachers' Association of Scotland and the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland agree and have called recently for urgent action. We should be wary of painting too bleak a picture, however.

Hay Group recently published the results of a study based on interviews with 2,000 teachers across the UK. What that showed was that schools are only too aware of the potential leadership difficulties ahead and, like much of the private sector, have already put succession plans in place.

The problem is that none of these strategies is getting people moving upwards quickly. The adage that admitting there's a problem is half the battle holds true in this instance. The other half is spotting those teachers with the potential to be great leaders and accelerating their development so they're ready and willing to take on the role.

Spotting leaders might sound like a guessing game, but leadership qualities are evident from the earliest days in someone's career, so developing those needs to begin early. If you can, move through a checklist, ticking as you go: able to see the big picture? Making connections and thinking of the whole school? Getting to grips with the basics of the current role quickly? Getting involved, self-motivated and using initiative? The antennae should be twitching.

Local authorities and schools should prioritise getting right the next steps in the careers of those identified as having potential, without focusing strongly on the ultimate goal. It's important to assess the success in the current role: concentrating on what a person might achieve in the future runs the risk of jumping the gun if not ready.

A great advantage of experienced leaders is their ability to plan in the long term. They have usually developed political awareness and are skilled in influencing others. To develop this kind of leadership maturity, high potentials should be exposed to a wide range of experiences and contexts.

Crucially, the next generation of leaders has to want to make the jump to headteacher. The hero model of leadership - limitless energy and creativity, boundless enthusiasm and fervent dedication to the job - cannot be sustained for any period of time without talented people burning out.

What we need are attractive, feasible roles with clear performance criteria and accountabilities, which allow a proper work-life balance. If the leaders of the future are likely to be younger than before, it seems less likely that they will have the willingness and even ability to devote long hours to the job. In any case, a long hours culture leads us back to the heroic leader. In its place should be an emphasis on results and contribution, not time spent at the desk.

Scottish schools and authorities have taken the issue seriously, thus we are further along the road than we might be. We need a concerted effort to identify those who can lead our schools in the years to come - and ensure they are given every opportunity and encouragement to develop.

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