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Nice work and you can get it

Being a headteacher is a privilege and a pleasure, says Mike Fielding, who urges teachers to ignore the bad image and set their sights on the top job

All the anguished punditry over the headteacher recruitment crisis is in danger of obscuring an important fact: being a headteacher is a really good job - in fact the best in the education service if you concentrate on the essentials and get the trivia into perspective.

I had 13 years as head of two very different comprehensives and only stopped this summer because I was working in Devon and my partner in Northumberland, which was no way to live our lives. And, at 58, ageism being what it is, nobody was going to give me another job. Otherwise, I'd be doing it still.

So, why does headship have such a bad press and so many schools find difficulty in recruiting? Why, indeed, do so few teachers want to make it to deputy and thereby join the pool from which heads can be drawn? Unions will say it's because the money's not attractive enough and the job too stressful and I'm sure that's true, particularly in the primary sector. But I suspect there's a deeper reason to do with the way the role has been publicised lately.

The quality of the head, we are told by researchers and politicians, is the single most important factor in school improvement. And that's a pretty daunting prospect. It means that anyone taking on the role is constantly in the public eye and turned to for the solution of all problems. All the stakeholders - staff, parents, governors, community at large - expect a lot from their headteacher.

But, looked at another way, doesn't that also mean the head is uniquely placed to shape a school to his or her own vision?

Every teacher knows what a school should be like, but few get the chance to put their philosophy into operation on the grand scale. The only thing preventing a head from doing so is his or her competence as manager of change.

That has been clearly proved by those schools - mostly in inner cities which, against the odds, have made massive improvements and are now, quite properly, held up as models of excellence.

Some will say it's a lonely job, cut off by position from the mainstream of school life. But that depends on attitude. Heads who want to be lofty or withdrawn can't expect much warmth from colleagues. Those who commit themselves to working genuinely in a free and open way which encourages the contribution of all staff to the school's development find that people are only too willing to become involved.

Good senior management teams provide support for the head as well as the rest of the staff. And while heads make dozens of decisions every day, the number they have to make alone and cannot share with colleagues if they want to is very small - for me, perhaps three or four in 13 years.

The image of headship suffers, too, from the macho style of those individuals who undervalue their colleagues and see themselves as the only barrier to total collapse of the school. It's an image to some extent fostered by emphasis from the Office for Standards in Education and others on "strong" or "determined" leadership rather than, say, "sensitive" or "supportive". This may also contribute to one of the more worrying features of the recruitment crisis - the comparatively low numbers of applications from women.

Far from a burden, it ought to be a privilege to lead a team of creative, articulate people who are highly qualified, trained and committed to doing their best for young people. It should also be a privilege - although sometimes a slightly scary one - to have all those young lives in your hands.

In all the management speak and concentration on budgets, measurable outcomes, value for money and so on, it's easy for heads to lose sight - almost literally sometimes - of the reason they are in post.

Students are the greatest pleasure of the job and, although a head may not do much teaching, he or she is uniquely placed to be involved with them in all aspects of school activity - in and out of the classroom. And the real pleasure of watching good teachers and interested young people engaged in the magic process of learning together makes all the problems pale into insignificance.

Before I'm accused of promoting the rose-spectacled view of the recently retired, I need to acknowledge that being a head is not easy. It's a highly pressured job with long hours - for me, seldom less than 10 a day, more often 12 or 14 - and huge responsibilities to large numbers of people. But no job with the kind of salary heads earn - even though it's still not enough - could be otherwise. There is also a difference between secondary headship and that of a small primary school where the head is really a classroom teacher with a lot more responsibility and not enough money.

It's also a job that has changed enormously, with almost entirely different demands now from when I started: the prospect, for instance, of having to make anyone redundant would never have occurred to me in 1984 but recently became an annual occurrence. Likewise, the welter of legislation and government interest is an important change and, for some heads who came into the job when I did, a source of deep disillusion.

Could it be that some of the deputies who don't want to be heads are being unduly influenced by these role models? If so, my advice is to find one of the many others who will tell you it is the most challenging, stimulating and ultimately rewarding job in the whole service. And then start applying. Your country definitely needs you and, more particularly, so do the thousand schools that started this term without a permanent headteacher.

Mike Fielding was formerly principal of The Community College, Chulmleigh, North Devon and now lives in Northumberland.

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