According to research by Education Data Surveys, 58 per cent of all vacancies for the post of head at Catholic schools had to be advertised again last year. This compares with 40 per cent for Church of England schools and an estimated 25 per cent for non-faith schools.
So it is perhaps not surprising to find the Catholic Church at the forefront of efforts to develop local leadership programmes to encourage aspiring heads.
Dr Harry O'Neill, director of education for the Catholic diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, is clear about some of the reasons for the lack of applications.
The diocese is a large one, stretching from Hadrian's Wall in the north to Middlesborough in the south and containing 163 Catholic state schools.
"People are reluctant to move out of their area," said Dr O'Neill. "Most of our applicants come from the north east. There are also perceptions about the heavy workload.
"Then there is the added dimension of being head of a Catholic school. Being the spiritual as well as the academic leader of a school can seem quite daunting. Irrespective of the religious beliefs of the children, you are the key person in setting the ethos and culture."
Heads of Catholic schools are required not only to be members of the church but to attend mass regularly. Deputy and assistant heads do not have to be practising Catholics, though governing bodies can insist on this if they want to. The situation is different in the Church of England, where there is no general rule and governing bodies can demand anything from regular attendance at church to a general commitment to Christian values.
Dr O'Neill said the diocese had responded to the challenge of nurturing new deputy and assistant heads, as well as headteachers, by setting up two local leadership programmes last year.
The 70 teachers on the primary programme were made up of both deputy or assistant heads and classroom teachers with leadership potential. The secondary programme was limited to 24 deputy or assistant heads wanting to lead Catholic schools.
Backed by advice from the National College for School Leadership and pound;50,000 in funding, the diocese has decided to run a new secondary programme beginning this term. This is aimed at all teachers in Catholic secondary schools with leadership potential, whether they are Catholic or not. Schools across the diocese have nominated 50 teachers for the programme, which opened earlier this month with a weekend conference in Darlington.
Gerard Moran, head of St John's Catholic School and Sixth-form Centre in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, said the aim of the latest programme was to help all schools in the region recruit heads and deputies.
"We've got a responsibility to all our staff," he said. "If we welcome them into our schools, we are responsible for developing them wherever they go."
Mr Moran has been seconded from his school for two years to work on leadership development for Durham county council and the local heads' association. He is one of six Catholic heads in the Hexham and Newcastle diocese responsible for drawing up the local leadership programmes.
"Evidence shows that it is harder for Catholic schools to recruit heads," Mr Moran said. "However, leading a Catholic school is a great opportunity. You've already got an agreed set of values. You don't need to waste time arguing about them. The values are a real benefit, particularly in times of difficulty, for example when a young person has died. They provide a way of supporting the whole community."
Joe Hughes, head of The English Martyrs School and Sixth-Form College in Hartlepool, nominated two of his teachers for the latest leadership programme.
"We can't just sit on the sidelines, bewail the situation and say there is nothing we can do," he said. "We need to be proactive. The problem is greater now than it was five, 10 or 20 years ago. I'm confident that the kind of scheme that we have set up will yield results."
Mr Hughes mulled over a list of eight to nine names before narrowing it down to two - Linda Ward, head of business studies, and Cath Leslie, head of geography.
"They're both advanced skills teachers, so it's not just us saying they are excellent," he said. "Both have leadership roles within the school and have worked on projects involving staff from other schools. They are dynamic and outward-looking and enjoy a challenge. They generate excitement and enthusiasm among their students. Their lessons have a buzz."
Chris Kirk, director of succession planning at the NCSL, said the Department for Children, Schools and Families had given the college funding to help create local leadership programmes across the country.
He said that 20 succession consultants had started working with schools this term, though it would not be possible to say how many programmes had been set up until half term, when they are due to report back to the NCSL.
"This is about local solutions," he said. "If an education authority commits to getting a grip on the issue and develops a strategy for how to deal with it, we will give them a small amount of funding and a succession consultant."
Professor John Howson, of Education Data Services and visiting professor of education at Oxford Brookes University, said recruitment problems at Catholic schools were no longer limited to headteachers, but increasingly involved deputy heads and heads of department.
"There was a problem 16 years ago and I've seen it get worse," he said. "The Catholic church is facing a dilemma. The nature of society is changing. Fewer people are attending mass - particularly young professionals. With another conservative Pope in office, it is difficult to believe that the hierarchy will relax the requirements for who can run their schools."
However, Oona Stannard, chief executive of the Catholic Education Service, said that there was no reason for the church to change its faith requirement for headteachers.
"There is no shortage of people qualified to be heads of Catholic schools and who are committed and practising Catholics. We need to reach out to those who are able to take up posts but aren't putting themselves forward."
Ms Stannard said she was working with the NCSL on a DVD to encourage teachers to apply for leadership positions, to be sent to all Catholic schools later this term.
"The overwhelming majority of headteachers, not just in Catholic but all schools, say they find their job very fulfilling," she added.
Spreading the proactive word
The Hexham and Newcastle leadership programme involved:
- A one-and-a-half-day residential course in November, including a question-and-answer session with four heads; a presentation on being a spiritual leader; workshop sessions centred on practical situations and two evening sessions on issues such as managing staff, working with governors and collaborative leadership.
- A day spent with senior figures from the diocese, including a priest, concentrating on diocesan strategy and the responsibilities of leadership, and one-to-one mentoring, with participants visiting experienced heads at other schools.
- The organisers of the programme believe that not only will it encourage teachers to apply for leadership roles but those taking part will do a better job in their existing posts.
Stepping stones to a senior role
As a former personnel manager from a Church of England background, Linda Ward accepts that becoming head of a Catholic school is a job for which she will not be eligible. But she can become an assistant head and that is what she is aiming for.
"You have to take things one step at a time," she said. "The head's role is still quite daunting for me, particularly the legal side."
She has taught at a mixture of faith and non-faith schools across the country.
"The big thing for me is whether the school has a community spirit. The two community schools I taught at in Essex had it because they were the only secondaries in their towns. Faith schools also tend to have a community ethos, which I appreciate."
As head of business studies at the Catholic English Martyrs Secondary School and Sixth Form College in Hartlepool, Ms Ward is also an advanced skills teacher.
What attracts her most about the local leadership programme is the chance to grill headteachers to find out what the job is really like.
"It would be good to move into a more senior role in a year or so," she said. "The assistant and deputy heads here are still teaching, so it's not a question of losing contact with the children. If you are organised and enthusiastic, people will be willing to take you forward in terms of promotion."
Photograph: Mark Pinder.