"I DON'T want to be a head - too much grief for not much more money." So says a deputy head of my acquaintance. She chooses to remain anonymous in case the chair of governors at the school where the plum headship might come up later this year is reading this.
Her reluctance to go for the top job is not unusual. More than a third have no plans to take up a headship, according to research carried out for the Department for Education and Skills in 2005. The most common reasons are stress, work-life balance and less contact with pupils. Yet 49 per cent of heads plan to leave their present school in the next three years.
Putting to one side this impending hiatus, how can all these deputies - most of whom step into the job at about the age of 40 - stay motivated, let alone effective, when they have 20-plus years to work until their full pension is secure? The second-in-command role is noble, but is it tenable for so long?
For a career deputy, it is their head who makes or breaks the role, says Vince Burke, chair of the National Association of Head Teachers' committee for deputy and assistant heads. "A good head will delegate major areas of responsibility and rotate them between deputies every few years," he said.
"Crucially, the head must ensure the deputy has the time to fulfil their responsibilities properly."
Now the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) is on hand to re-energise flagging deputies. Leadership Pathways, launched this year, aims to bridge the gap between Leading from the Middle and the National Professional Qualification for Headship.
"This is one for the purists," said Eddie Liptrot, co-ordinator for the course in the North West. "It is an opportunity to look at leadership in a deeper way and gives time for both implementation and reflection."
Participants identify their needs, and those of their school, to devise their own pathway through the modular programme, which lasts between nine and 12 months. Most learning is online, covering topics central to the national agenda, such as extended schools and Every Child Matters.
Participants meet for one-day sessions at the beginning, middle and end, with the option of four further days looking at interpersonal skills. A mentor supports them throughout.
The hope is to attract even those who say headship is not for them, and to seduce them into applying for the boss's job after all. (Well, if the NCSL isn't going to solve the looming heads shortage, who is?) For Mr Liptrot, inspiration - regardless of further ambition - is key.
"Implicit within the programme and everything we do is to instil in people that joie de vivre that goes with good leadership," he said.
Some 1,640 people have enrolled so far, exceeding the NCSL's target of 1,500. My deputy head acquaintance had better look out - there might be keener competition for that plum vacancy than she thinks.