The National Association of Head Teachers, alarmed by growing evidence of members under intolerable stress, is to press the School Teachers' Review Body to establish "proper, acceptable and realistic working hours and holidays for heads and deputies".
Members of the 32,000-strong association have voted to abandon their previous reluctance to set down standard working hours in order to have some safeguard against overwork and the resulting stress which is leading growing numbers to seek early retirement.
"If their contract says they should work 40 hours a week, heads are unlikely to do that and then go home," says Kerry George, senior assistant secretary at the NAHT. "But they need some protection when they become ill and to safeguard staffing levels - at the moment there isn't any."
A survey conducted last year for the STRB by the Office of Manpower Economics found that one in two secondary heads and one in four primary heads worked more than 60 hours a week. Primary heads worked an average of 55 hours a week; the average for secondary heads was more than 60.
And that did not cover "waking up at night in a cold sweat", in the words of Chris Thatcher, the NAHT national council member who moved the motion on hours at its recent annual conference. He cited anecdotal evidence of a growing difficulty in recruiting to headships because of the stresses associated with the job.
Heads of small rural primaries are under special pressure, as they have to cope with the extra administration created by local management of schools, often without the help of a deputy and often with a full teaching load as well.
In Somerset, where 3 to 4 per cent of heads are currently off work with stress-related illness, the county council has appointed two experienced heads as part-time headteacher support co-ordinators. From September they will go round schools suggesting, for instance, whom the head might contact about a particular organisational problem or suggesting a way round problems with governors. The county also offers confidential professional counselling to heads on request.
Nick Henwood, chief education officer, says heads who find the going difficult deserve professional support, preferably long before their health is impaired. "Absence is personally distressing for the head but also has a major impact on the running of the school and is very expensive," he points out.
Increased concern about overworked heads comes as a new report highlights the stress felt by growing numbers of British workers as a result of rising working hours, rising travel times and rising female participation in the workforce.
"The Time Squeeze", published last week by the think tank Demos, found that a quarter of British men work more than 48 hours a week. It said 59 per cent of the adult population suffered stress and 44 per cent of workers came home exhausted.
Certainly all those working in the education system seem to be under great and increasing pressure. To the old problem of disruptive pupils have been added the new pressures of LMS, the national curriculum and OFSTED inspections.
The 24-hour stress helpline set up on June 1 by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers for its 150,000 members had received some 50 calls by the start of this week.
Applications for early retirement on health grounds tell the tale. They rose from 2,500 in 1984 to 5,500 last year, and the 2,000 applications submitted to the Teachers' Pensions Agency in the first three months of this year were twice that for the same period last year.
And teachers' stress is by no means confined to schools. Last year, a major survey by NATFHE, the college lecturers' union, found that one in four had taken time off for stress-related illnesses.
The lecturers' average working week were well above the levels stipulated in their contracts: 48 hours for those working in the new universities and 44.5 for college lecturers. Those figures are expected to get worse as new contracts between college management and lecturers bite.
Average holiday entitlement is being cut from 14 weeks to seven (although the real figure, including public holidays, is nearer 10), and weekly class-contact time is rising from a maximum of 21 hours to a maximum of 26 to 28.
One anxiety factor mentioned by many schoolteachers - OFSTED inspections - is also causing stress to the inspectors. HMI members of the First Division Association for top civil servants are understood to have discussed their low morale with management. They say assessments of workload do not take into account the time it takes to evaluate schools or the time taken to travel to them.
The HMIs' workload has been especially heavy since they were drafted in to help the Government meet its target of inspecting all 21,000 primaries in four years.
So the stressed are inspecting the stressed. And what does that do to the children?