Pay's the thing for disaffected school leaders

Andrew Strong

I have a problem: I can't get someone to fix my roof. It's only a small job, but I'm not scrambling up there. I'm no good with heights - I get vertigo just from standing up too quickly. It's the same with all those household repairs. I'd rather pay someone. But can I get anyone? No.

I recall that my grandmother employed an "odd job man". His name was Fred and he had a big dimple in his chin. I need someone like that, but there's no Fred to be found. But I have a solution. The Government should introduce a qualification for odd-job operatives.

Applicants might have to fill in a very big form to apply for the course that enables them to achieve the appropriate qualification, but that's not asking too much, is it? And, should they have to pay travel expenses or accommodation costs in order to attend, I'm sure they will all see the future rewards. Eventually, after a year or two, they will get their qualification. And then we'll have all the odd job operatives we need. Won't we?

No, of course we won't. Getting a professional qualification does not necessarily mean people will go on to follow that career. But that seems to be the logic of the National Professional Qualification for Headship being compulsory for aspiring heads.

Many schools close to me cannot appoint heads. When advertised, posts attract very few applications. There is very little interest in the role right now. It's a hard job, with a huge responsibility, and it is not well remunerated.

A primary near my home recently advertised for a new leader. It received one application, and the applicant was not suitable, it seems. Several schools in my county have experienced a similar response when advertising for a head.

I called the National Assembly. Do officials know that no one is applying? Unfortunately, they admitted that data on the number of applicants is not collected. "But it's a good idea," I was told. And they agreed that from next year, school returns to the Assembly government would include the number of applications for advertised posts.

What is certain is that, although there are significant numbers of people who want to be teachers, very few want to be heads. No one wants to do the job. But why not?

I have an idea. My journey to work every day is tainted with unease. What will go wrong? What will I be blamed for today? When I arrive, I must get up to speed quickly, answering the phone, opening mail, tying pupils' laces, greeting parents, signing this, signing that, phone calls, emails - and it's only five to nine. Four out of five days a week I have a full day's teaching ahead of me. What about that fire alarm? And that shelf, that fence, that goldfish? What if someone climbs on the roof? It's asbestos. Or if someone gets inside the school and claims squatters' rights?

Even worse is the feeling that if anything does go wrong, there will be no one there to help me. I will be alone, floating in an abyss.

Whenever I read the debate about heads' workload, pay is never mentioned. So I want to mention it here. The pay isn't enough for the job. If nobody is applying for the job, then something must be wrong. Perhaps the job is difficult, but then so are plenty of other jobs. Brain surgery is tricky, isn't it? And piloting a jumbo jet requires some training, I suppose. So, being a head is hard too. The pay, or lack of it, is why good candidates for the job give it a miss. I'm going to do something else instead. But does anyone care?

So, what is a realistic salary for a head? First, I would suggest it is one that attracts more than three applicants. Assembly members voted themselves a pay rise almost as soon as they could, and MPs in Westminster have never been shy of doing so. They cite workload and the need to encourage the most able people. What does that say about teachers? That we're lazy and stupid?

In March 2008, Assembly members were awarded an inflation-zapping pay rise of 8.3 per cent. Is there a shortage of people who wish to be Assembly members? The rise was to "bring Assembly members in line with MPs at Westminster". Why? Are teachers in Wales "in line" with teachers in England? Where are our laptops? Where are our electronic learning credits? What has happened to our budgets?

Then, in August, I read that one or two Assembly members had made some pretty outrageous expenses claims - Pounds 2,000 for a sofa, Pounds 1,000 for a TV. Why such an expensive TV? You obviously have time to watch it, whoever you are. I don't.

Perhaps schools can do without heads. Assembly members want big televisions and nice new sofas funded by taxpayers. Education can wait.

And what does that say about education? It suggests that education doesn't matter - that it doesn't matter because nobody makes that much of a fuss, that we are a nation of philistines. We hate ideas, books, learning and academics. But more than any of these, we hate teachers.

And now you all hate me. Fair enough. I'm off to start my own business anyway. I'm going to be an education consultant. Can I send you one of my leaflets?

Andrew Strong, Head of Llanbister Primary in Powys and author of 'Oswald and the End of the World', a children's book.

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