When Nancy Hughes took on the headship of a struggling inner-city primary, she gave it her all. The school had a rapid staff turnover and a budget deficit, and children's behaviour was out of control. "It required the commitment of someone able to give it more than 9 to 5," she says now, a decade later. "In the early years, I arrived at school at 7am and left at 6pm. At night, I made phone calls, did paperwork and thought about the issues."
This kind of punishing workload is not untypical of headteachers, but a study funded by the Department for Education and Skills has uncovered a startling fact. While almost all male heads - 98 per cent - combine the demands of the job with a domestic partnership, one female head in three lives alone. Men, it seems, can have it all, but women in education are likely to forgo a partner and children for a top job.
Nancy Hughes (not her real name), who was 40 when she took on her second headship, made a key decision earlier in her life. "I was happy and fulfilled in my teaching career. I began to realise that if this was a vocation, maybe I had to sacrifice marriage. I couldn't cope with both. If I was that committed to children and schools as organisations - particularly as a leader - I knew I would find marriage difficult. For me, it was one or the other."
Without a partner to unburden herself to, Nancy relied on friends and colleagues for support. "I sometimes felt overwhelmed, but I was saved by my solid and honest governing body. I could ring up the chair of governors, have a bawl and say, 'I need you down here now'." She found she could say the unsayable to a mentor from the Business in the Community Partners in Leadership scheme, which links heads with business leaders. "It was safe.
He was a good listener and could sometimes come back on things." And she relied on a small circle of close friends - most of whom had nothing to do with teaching - to ground her in life outside school.
"Living alone means you deal with things differently. The plus is that you don't have to worry about issues of a partner or children. The minus is there is no one to share it with." When she decided to leave her previous school -where she had a poor relationship with the chair of governors - it was her mother she told first. "I had no intention of staying until I had a nervous breakdown and left with a bunch of flowers."
Disciplined about maintaining a life out of school, Ms Hughes sings, swims and shops for relaxation, and never works on Saturdays. "I throw the bag in a corner on Friday evening and I don't see it again until Sunday. It's a habit I got into early in my career, and it's my lifeline." She holidays alone and plans to travel and do voluntary work when she retires. She describes herself as "used to dealing with loneliness and aloneness", in a job usually described as intrinsically lonely. She also regrets never having had children. But she believes her school - which she describes as having been like an "abused family" when she arrived - has benefited from her undivided attention. "I couldn't give the levels of support and care I do if I had to give it to my direct family."
Dr Janet Powney, who oversaw the DfES research into teachers' career progression in 62 English local education authorities, was surprised to find that 32 per cent of female heads live alone. "It is a struggle for women to get senior posts," she says. "Headship is a lonely job, hard work, and if you don't have a partner you can dedicate your life to it."
The research found that family circumstance, rather than gender per se, was the major influence in the career progression of female teachers.
Family-friendly part-time or job-share arrangements are rare in senior posts, and women who enter teaching late or after career breaks do not have experience commensurate with their age, and are less likely to be promoted.
Andrea Choppy is the new head of Salisbury primary school in the east London borough of Newham. Now aged 43, she had her three children early, then, after working as a nursery nurse, went on to do a BEd. "I wanted to make a difference to more children," she says. "I didn't just want to be a nursery nurse and I wanted to further my career." A year ago, 10 years after completing her teacher training, and as a single parent, having brought her children up by herself, she became a head. "I've had relationships, but maybe I've not prioritised them because there were lots of things going on and they haven't necessarily been supportive of what I've been doing," she says.
Used to making her own decisions, she finds compromise difficult - "because I've been so independent, that might be a strain on a relationship" - and has found that potential partners do not understand the pressures of the job. "People think you're just in the office, or that you're OK because the holidays are coming up. They don't understand that it doesn't stop and that you take it home, whether it is paperwork or mental aspects."
Ms Choppy socialises a lot out of school and meets people through her gym and circle of friends. She would like a long-term relationship, but runs into one of the conundrums familiar to female heads. Relationships with colleagues are out - "it would be difficult for me, as a head" - but perhaps only a fellow teacher can fully appreciate the pressures of the job. "I sometimes wonder if a relationship with a teacher would work. The pressures and stresses; they might understand it more."
Being a single parent helps her understand the position of some parents in the school and other working mothers. She plans to introduce the extended day at Salisbury. "We need to look at more ways of providing all staff in school with facilities so their children are cared for. Government forgets that teachers and support staff are working parents too."
Irene Dalton recently retired after 17 years as head of Wombwell secondary school in Barnsley. She was divorced two years into the headship, but she believed living alone complemented her leadership role. "Being single takes the pressure off and enables you to be focused. You don't have to pick up the phone and say, 'I'm going to be late, darling'. If you are responsible for everything at home, you get used to doing the car, the mortgage and the rest; making decisions unsupported becomes a way of life. Then being in that position in school is not unfamiliar."
Ms Dalton was already aware that schools are not always particularly family-friendly employers. When, earlier in her teaching life, she had to take time off to care for her sick daughter, she called school saying her car had broken down, judging that mechanical issues were better received than personal ones, even among female colleagues. When she got the job at Wombwell, she was initially one of just two women among the 20 secondary heads in the local education authority. "If you go for it, you have to accept that it is still, to a large extent, a man's world," she says.
Once they become heads, women may find it difficult to curtail the demands of the job, particularly if they live alone. Ms Dalton thanks one of her former deputies for pointing out that "just because you haven't got a family doesn't mean you haven't got a life", and reminding her to delegate.
"There is a tendency to say yes, to take the responsibility in an enormous way. We are conditioned, as women in senior management, to think we have to work harder."
She found her Secondary Heads Association network a source of great support, and drove school out of her mind by working for the Cats Protection League -"crouching in a hedge in the dark trying to catch a pregnant feral cat uses another part of your brain". She rejects the idea of school as a surrogate family and quotes the Christian concept of love as duty. "There is a lot of love in it but it is not a soggy kind of love. It is love commanded by the will, strict love. Taking children seriously is more important than trying to be their friend."
Rona Tutt, president of the National Association of Head Teachers and a former primary head, believes women can manage life alone better than men.
"Women are good at multi-tasking. Men need support to keep their everyday life going, someone to provide a clean shirt." Equal opportunities is not working in education, says Dr Tutt, citing the large number of women teachers and small proportion of women heads.
Nothing in the NAHT's discussions with the DfES indicate that the job is going to get anything but bigger, which does not bode well for a younger generation of heads, whatever their gender.
THE GENDER GAP
* Women form 69 per cent of teachers in the maintained sector.
* Men under 30 make up just under 4 per cent of full-time staff in maintained nursery, primary and secondary schools.
* Women are under-represented in management positions, particularly in the secondary sector, where only 31 per cent of heads are female.
* Thirty-two per cent of white female heads live alone compared to 2 per cent of males.
From: Teachers' Careers: the impact of age, disability, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, by Janet Powney et al. see www.dfes.govukresearch