Spotting and training potential school leaders at the very start of their teaching careers could be the only way to stave off a looming headteacher recruitment crisis, experts have warned.
Heath Monk, chief executive of headteacher training charity Future Leaders, told TES: "There are definitely qualities in teachers that can be spotted earlier and nurtured. Personal characteristics. Things like resilience, optimism, self-awareness. The ability to create a network and ask for help."
Ofsted's chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has also called for schools to identify good teachers at the very beginning of their careers, so they can start being prepared for leadership roles immediately.
"The way we appoint headteachers is shambolic at the moment," he told a pupil premium summit in London last week. "It needs to be much more professional. We need to track people from basically the early years of the profession all the way through to headship."
Schools are currently facing a severe shortage of leaders. A survey carried out by TES last year revealed that one in three school governors found it difficult to attract headteachers to their schools. John Howson, an education consultant and senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, has predicted that recruitment will hit crisis point by 2017-18 at the latest.
And the problem is likely to be exacerbated in future by the current shortage of new teachers, Professor Howson believes.
Mr Monk said the situation had also arisen because the approach to promotion in schools was often haphazard. "People fall into management roles and get a bit more senior," he said. "Then suddenly they're a deputy, and they haven't really thought about where they're going. So they stay where they are."
Everything about the current headteacher recruitment process encourages this approach, according to Beth Kelly of the Open University. She conducted a detailed study of 30 headship recruitment packs, including job descriptions and personal specifications. The results of this analysis will be presented at the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (Belmas) conference this weekend.
She found that the word "vision" was mentioned in only half the documents. "Enthusiasm" appeared in fewer than half. The word "values" appeared only nine times. By contrast, the terms that appeared most often included "experience" (mentioned 131 times), "ability" (102 times), "leadership" (77 mentions) and "skills" (68 mentions).
"Schools are sometimes looking for the wrong thing," Mr Monk said. "They're looking for a set of skills and experience, rather than individual characteristics.
"If I don't know about how the school budget works, I can learn about that in one week. But if I'm not resilient and self-aware and humble, that's not going to change."
Ms Kelly added strategic thinking, integrity, creativity and clarity to this list of qualities. She agreed that teachers who demonstrated such attributes should be singled out and offered leadership training from an early stage.
Experience still counts
But neither denied the benefits of experience. "You can't just pick someone and say, `Run a school'," Mr Monk said. "But in the first few years of teaching, you can see those leadership qualities and you can build on them.
"It's harnessing that ambition - making sure that those teachers are acknowledged and developed from early on. It makes leadership less daunting: push people to take that leap of faith, and not just stay where they are."
Ms Kelly added that this training could also help teachers to prepare mentally for headship: to see themselves as managers instead of teachers. "When you move into senior leadership, you stop being a teacher in a sense," she said. "You can experience grief at identity loss.
"A lot of heads feel they have to say that they still teach, as though to imply that they're still relevant. When, in fact, it's a different role."
And Professor Howson highlighted the importance of being open-minded when spotting management potential among the newest teachers. Career-changers, who entered teaching in their thirties or forties, were often overlooked for promotion by heads or governors, he said, as were women who had taken career breaks to raise children.
"If you've got someone who comes in late and they've got other skills, don't overlook them," Professor Howson said. "They potentially have another 20 years in the profession. Individual schools are making decisions when they don't understand the market."
`Give autonomy in a safe way'
Dave Hall, pictured, did not intend to be a senior leader. But he was keen and willing to put his head above the parapet.
First he was put in charge of A-level chemistry. When that worked well, he became head of science. After that, he was promoted to assistant head, and then deputy, until eventually he was associate headteacher of Bay House School in Hampshire.
"It was about taking opportunities and running with them, really," Mr Hall says.
However, he also profited from the kind of training and support advocated by those trying to combat the current headteacher shortage.
"I've benefited here from the head and the governors recognising early on that they could spot something in me," he says. "They would trust me, and give me things to do, obviously supporting me.
"It's about recognising early on the talent that people have, and giving them autonomy in a safe way.
"Don't put them in charge of a nuclear power station. But give them the opportunity to develop."