Primary headteacher vacancies in particular are at an all-time high. They were up by almost a third in the first three months of this year and continue to rise. Last week in The TES 164 primary headships were advertised, an unprecedented number for a single week; this week the number exceeds 175.
Primary headship vacancies have for some time been difficult to fill, especially in the inner cities. Now the advertisements show the vacancies are nationwide. For a full analysis we must wait until the end of the recruitment period. But there have never been anywhere near as many advertised at once in the decade since such statistics were first collected.
This stampede has a number of causes. The threat to early retirement - the equivalent, it seems to shouting "Fire!" in a crowded room - has clearly precipitated a rush for the exits. But this has only topped the underlying trend towards early retirement, a reflection on the perceived balance of stresses and rewards of the job.
The national curriculum, testing, targets, league tables, parent power, greater competition and the struggle to maintain morale in the face of cuts and incessant criticism, have all taken a toll. So have managing the school with inadequate support and funding while answering, first, to a powerful but amateur governing body, and then to what is regarded as an unsympathetic inspection service. Meanwhile, integration and the rising tides of social stress and special needs have increased disruption and drawn primary heads increasingly into social welfare. Mutual support within local authorities and from fellow heads has been another casualty and all these factors have contributed to the feeling of many heads that, while their responsibilities have increased, their control has diminished.
There is a great deal of rhetoric about the crucial importance of good leadership. And yet many primary heads are paid little more than a deputy or senior teacher, a reality the teachers' pay review body has failed to tackle. It is not surprising if many primary heads wonder if the game is any longer worth the candle. So too do the many deputies who now jib at the prospect of the top job, especially if it entails an expensive and disruptive move or a more complicated journey to do a job seen as increasingly onerous and demanding. As one put it, the ladder has been replaced by a treadmill.
As a result many schools may be without proper leadership from September. A third of all unfilled vacancies last year were primary headships, a situation that is likely to worsen.
Many in schools are simply worn down by the lack of appreciation of the difficult job they do. It is all very well to excoriate 3,000 heads publicly for poor management and 15,000 teachers for their supposed incompetence. But where are all those with greater competence to come from to take on not only the jobs vacated by those retiring from the fray but also the additional ones created by the 10 per cent increase in pupil numbers due by 2004?
Something more constructive needs to be done to improve working conditions, pride in the job and teachers' abilities to do it. David Hargreaves's one-term sabbaticals or Sir David Puttnam's awards for outstanding teachers (page 16) might well play a part in restoring the attractions of the profession.