Fears of prosecution over children's injuries and increasing workloads are deterring teachers from applying for school headships.
Between 1992 and 1997 the numbers of applicants for the competitive headship examination fell by 30 per cent and has not recovered since. The profession is also steadily ageing. More than half those taking the exam are over 45, with an increase in the 51 to 55 age group.
As vacancies have remained unfilled, those with lower scores have been accepted and the number of schools with acting heads has risen to 1,065 in 1998, 8 per cent of the total, compared with 600 five years before.
Worried about the slump in numbers even considering the job, education minister Claude All gre and schools minister Segol ne Royal commissioned an inquiry last October from the chief education officer of Paris, Rene Blanchet.
Of particular concern, said Mr Blanchet, is heads' legal responsibility for the safety of pupils in areas where they have no control - for example they are legally accountable for school playground accidents, even though maintenance of equipment is the local authority's responsibility.
Recent court cases include a former nursery head in Bastia who was convicted in March of "imprudence, negligence and breach of a legal obligation to security" after a six-year-old boy broke his femur, although she was not supervising pupils at the time of the accident.
Last December, following a coach accident near Aix-en-Provence which killed three children and the driver, a primary head received a 10-month suspended sentence, even though he was not on the trip.
Other complaints include the growing complexity of the education system; decentralisation of some functions from national to local government leading to more bureaucracy; and the burden of administrative requirements, such as trying to satisfy parents' demands, masterminding school projects, organising theme weeks, and managing classroom assistants, school funds and staff replacements.
Heads say they lack support, feel isolated and have no say in staff assessment.
Pay is also seen as poor. For most it means a basic teacher's salary topped up with various allowances and premiums. Mr Blanchet asked whether this was a fair reward for hours, pressures and responsibilities that were among the greatest in the educational community.
His 39 recommendations include setting up individual contracts between schools and the educational administration, as is the case in higher education, and reorganisation to involve principals more fully in staff evaluation.
Recruitment of new heads should be widened to include civil servants from outside education, and the maximum age fixed at 50, he said. Also, acting heads should be given full tenure in certain circumstances.