In what is described as "probably the worst recruitment crisis in living memory", the survey by the National Association of Head Teachers shows massive rises in vacancies over the past year, combined with fewer applications and an increasing need to re-advertise posts. The figures will be particularly worrying now that there is a general consensus in education that the quality of leadership is crucial to the battle to raise standards.
The survey shows that 2,516 vacancies for primary heads were advertised between September 1, 1996 and August 1, 1997, a rise of 29 per cent on the previous year. Three hundred and fifty of these posts had to be re-advertised. Vacancies for secondary heads also rose by 24 per cent, although the actual numbers are fewer (449, compared to 362 last year).
Making the jump from head of department to deputy head is even less desirable, the figures suggest. Vacancies for primary deputy headships rose by 47 per cent this year and for secondary deputy headships by a massive 52 per cent.
The NAHT will be presenting these figures to the School Teachers Review Body, which will consider teachers' pay later this year. David Hart, general secretary of the NAHT, said that the difference in pay between a head of department and a deputy head was not enough to persuade people to take on the extra responsibility. "Being a head or deputy is one of the most accountable jobs in the public sector. People look at the impact of the job in terms of added stress and responsibility, and decide that the salaries on offer do not compensate and that they'd rather stay as head of department.
"Unless the recruitment position improves dramatically, the Government's drive for higher standards could be fatally undermined," he warned.
The situation this year has been exacerbated by the numbers of senior teachers scrambling to leave before the changes in pension regulations came into effect this week. About 2,000 heads and deputies are thought to have left for this reason, but this would not explain the fall in applications.
While inner-city schools are, predictably, most affected by the shortage of heads, even schools in the most beautiful and, apparently desirable, parts of Britain are reporting problems. In Cornwall, for instance, fewer candidates have come forward this year. Jonathan Harris, the county's secretary for education (equivalent to a chief education officer), said: "Pay is not the only factor. People seem more reluctant to take on the stress and responsibility that headship brings; they would rather stick at what they are doing."
He said that around 29 heads, almost all primary, had left in the past year - one in eight of all heads in Cornwall. Six primaries and two secondaries will be starting the new term with acting heads.
Anthea Millett, chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, said: "One reason why teachers aren't coming forward is because they feel ill-prepared to take on additional responsibilities and challenges. The National Professional Qualification for Headship (the TTA's new training scheme for would-be heads) will give them that preparation, and will therefore have a direct impact on numbers applying for headship positions."
* News focus, pages 10-12