Education action zones and the Government's determination to turn round failing schools and ineffective local education authorities have created a demand for cavalry officers who can ride to the rescue.
About 500 schools were operating under special measures in 1997-98 following dismal inspection reports. A further 550 were said to have serious weaknesses. But having been drained of expertise, LEAs have no advisers they can draft in; while the demoralised schools that are deemed to have failed are on their beam-ends. There is, consequently, a growing market for experienced trouble-shooters who are prepared to work on short-term contracts.
Multi-disciplinary education companies such as Nord Anglia, CfBT and CEA are providing some of the interim heads and consultants, but these firms are now advertising for more of the same. Sue Barrow, CEA director of recruitment, says: "Our survey of LEAs suggests that 200 to 300 interim heads are going to be needed in any one year - almost all are for schools that are under special measures or have serious weaknesses. The 20 LEAs we are working with are mainly unitary authorities, as many of the established LEAs find their own caretaker heads.
"We could be witnessing the birth of a new breed of experts in interim management - experienced individuals prepared to see a project through on a short-term contract. It's something industry has been doing for years."
Nord Anglia's chief executive Kevin McNeany is even more bullish about the long-term pros-pects of companies offering inter-im management. "In five years' time, it (private-sector involvement) will be very big. There's a great need for people with proven track records and ideas."
Nord Anglia is recruiting bursars, admissions tutors and facilities managers for schools that want to manage their entire budgets. It is also seeking a range of professionals - special needs teachers and pastoral heads - for LEA intervention work.
Trouble-shooting is most likely to appeal to newly retired heads, who are still up to speed on current developments, and Office for Standards in Education inspectors, most of whom have seen their workload drop dramatically in recent months. But such work is also open to serving heads and senior managers.
CEA's advice for anyone interested is to approach their chair of governors and LEA for a year's secondment. Ms Barrow says: "Interim management is an ideal form of career development, whether as part of secondment or a long-term switch."
Mr McNeany adds: "Becoming a step-in head greatly improves people's marketability, and as a large consultancy we are in a position to help heads market their skills."
But CfBT's Neil McIntosh does not see a rush to short-term contracts as there are too few individuals of the right calibre to refloat sinking schools. He is adopting a team approach and wants to recruit part-time managers who can bring a range of expertise to bear. "If a school's governing body can't find the head it wants, we will put together a package - a combination of a part-time head and management support. We want our locum heads to use their scarce skills only on essential tasks, so they may only work half time or less in any one school."
CfBT and CEA stress that they work in partnership with LEAs to put schools back on the road to recovery and create the stability needed to make the appointment of a full-time head viable.
But David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, is still worried by such developments. "Headship has become a high-risk business. The job security that was once an important part of headship is being undermined. However, as some of our members are doing short-term trouble-shooting jobs I am keen to see that they negotiate the best possible contracts."