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Stressed primary heads quit early

A lack of job satisfaction is leading primary headteachers to take early retirement, according to group of former heads interviewed by Moray House Institute. None regretted their decision.

Fourteen former heads were interviewed two to three years after they took early retirement. In what Janet Draper and Paquita McMichael, the researchers, describe as "lively, even cathartic" discussions, they said that the changed nature of headship had been the strongest reason for leaving.

Many objected to their supposed role as a "chief executive". One said: "It is impossible to finish a job. One initiative is coming through the door before you have finished dealing with the last one. 5-14 sticks out the most. Lord James [Douglas-Hamilton, the former education minister] said it should be all in place in four to five years, and a whole heap arrived like a flock of pigeons landing on your roof."

Another complaint was over the many duties involved. "You don't know if you are going to be a janitor, teacher or head. The bank manager never becomes the teller. You can't prioritise with young children. You can't just leave things. I am the eye of the needle and everything passes through me."

Declining staff morale and a feeling of being cheated of the close relationship with children from which they had drawn satisfaction as teachers and when first appointed a head were other reasons for disillusionment. One ex-head said: "Ten to 12 years ago I knew 400 names out of 500 kids. Last year I only knew 50 out of 200: the good, the bad and the sad."

The heads interviewed had served between 11 and 33 years and said they felt they had to leave while they retained a zest for life. Bureaucratic pressures and especially the increased volume of paperwork were a problem. "In the past we only got two letters a week. I could keep my papers in two drawers of a filing cabinet then, and when I left I needed four-drawer cabinets," one said.

The interviews elicited a surprising degree of resentment about the changed role of the Inspectorate, which was said to have abandoned a supportive role and turned into "the political police". HMIs were no longer independent and lacked sympathy and understanding.

Heads objected to being held accountable by directors of education as well as HMIs for matters which showed a lack of understanding of their day-to-day activities. "Directors don't know what happens in a primary school. Even their teaching experience is very little,never mind having been a headteacher. "

Family and financial considerations also played a part in the decision to retire. The researchers conclude: "Primary heads who took up their posts in the 1960s and 70s having reached their mid to late-50s and failing to perceive a strong desire for the system to retain them feel no serious desire to use their energies any longer within the field of state education."

Janet Draper and Paquita McMichael will give a paper next month at the British Educational Management and Administration Society conference on preparing primary deputes and assistant heads for promotion. They will now look at newly appointed heads. "I am the eye of the needle and everything passes through me: primary heads explain their retirement" appears in the journal School Organisation.

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