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Mere mortals cannnot steer our headship

Headteacher recruitment is a hot topic. Many vacancies for leadership posts have to be re-advertised, with faith schools and those in more challenging circumstances finding it hardest to recruit.

It cannot be a surprise that heads in the baby-boomer bulge will be retiring in the next few years. Add threshold payments and advanced skills status keeping good teachers in the classroom and eroding salary differentials, especially in smaller schools, and, hey presto! a dearth of applicants for headship.

Our local authority is busy planning how to cope - federating schools, kidnapping heads (especially Catholic ones) from the developing world, and so on. However, nobody seems to be considering why heads are leaving - many of them retiring early, on reduced pensions, happy to be getting out with their sanity intact - and, more crucially, the reasons why younger staff no longer aspire to the top job.

In the olden days (up to 1990), the headmaster or mistress, good, bad or indifferent, commanded universal respect. The sum total of their function was to preside over assemblies (no awe and wonder required), deploy staff, write the PE timetable and order the pencils. Back then it was a job to be aspired to and one that could be carried out with some degree of success and satisfaction by your averagely able teacher with a passion for education, a modicum of ambition and a few management skills.

When I became a head nearly eight years ago, the job had already changed out of all recognition with local management of schools, management plans, the national curriculum (already on its third version), Ofsted, Sats, literacy and numeracy hours, increased parental choice. I nevertheless took it all on, confident that with the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) and with experience I would, in time, master the many and various aspects of the task.

No such luck. As my skills increased, so did the demands of the job. The bar, already too high, has been raised time and again. Add to the above performance management, school improvement, threshold, changes to special educational needs (SEN), two more Ofsted frameworks, schools' self evaluation, excellence and enjoyment, national curriculum changes, catch-up programmes, booster classes, laptops for teachers (a great initiative, but you still need a policy), e-learning credits, school achievement awards, the autumn package, heads' targets, external assessors, pupil targets, tracking attainment, stepping stones, foundation stage profile, the behaviour imporvement programmme, Excellence in Cities, primary leadership programme, network learning communities, strategic leadership of ICT, Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers (LPSH), gifted and talented, the graduate teacher programme, best value, space for sports and arts, Sure Start. My school has been involved in all of these and we've had more files and lunchboxes than hot dinners. The workload agreement has addressed teachers' work-life balance, but at what cost to heads? Support staff require recruiting, performing budget miracles to afford them, and covering when they are ill.

Don't even try to draw breath: another Ofsted framework, a new format Panda, value-added, and an all-new national strategy. Every Child Matters - of course - but there's a new agenda of working differently with other agencies. Children's centres bring new challenges, among other things, in offering childcare for children from 0 to 5 for 50 weeks a year. And there's more: modern foreign languages and musical instrument tuition for all (maybe not simultaneously), as well as two hours of PE per week; changes to nursery times to better suit working parents, school improvement partners and external assessment of our financial management practices.

What will be the final straw? Maybe the extended schools agenda. Halfway through a headteachers' meeting last week one colleague, who leads a very effective school in the city and is passionate about education, stood up and said "I have lost the will to live", and left the hall doing the Morecambe and Wise final dance. He, along with 13 other heads (out of 70 in the city) has put in his resignation for July. Others are planning their exit strategies.

The headship bar is already set at a level where only the very best, most resilient heads can attempt to clear it. Faced with a scarcity of leaders, we cannot keep ratcheting up the demands we make on heads. Instead we need to bring the job of headship within the reach of a normal human being with fire and passion for education and a modicum of organisational ability.

This will not only benefit heads, but more importantly, it will benefit our children.

Cathy Byrne is head of The Parks primary school in Hull

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