Course and effect

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
Not enough women, particularly among primary teachers, are coming forward for headships. The figures speak for themselves: 83 per cent of primary teachers are women, but only 53 per cent of primary heads are. At secondary level, 52 per cent of teachers but only 24 per cent of heads are women.

"We need to convince women that headship is for them, " Anthea Millett, the chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, said recently. Frankie Sulke, the agency's head of teacher training, says that women still tend to lack confidence in their abilities, and are less likely to see themselves as prepared for headship than their male colleagues.

Many heads, deputies and teachers believe that the present generation of experienced women teachers are more aware of the gaps in their experience than men are, and are less confident about putting themselves up for the top job. As one deputy head put it: "Women read a job description and think 'I can't do that and that.' Men go right ahead and apply anyway."

There are two prongs to the agency's strategy to attract more women to headship. One is the new qualification for heads, the National Professional Qualification for Headteachers (NPQH). More than 4,000 people are on the first courses, which started last September; of these, 63 per cent of the primary candidates are women. There is no doubt that the qualification should help to build some women's confidence in their own experience and abilities.

But the quality of the initial courses seems to have been variable. The most enthusiasti c response canvassed was a tepid "quite useful. It's helped to consolidate what I know and sharpen my thinking". But other comments included: "dire, no structure to the sessions, and misleading briefing for the tasks".

The qualification is also time-consuming and stressful for deputy heads who are already working well over 50 hours a week, particularly where women are running families as well. Many have to do the extensive work for the qualification entirely in their already very limited spare time, since there are no extra funds to pay for supply cover. In secondary schools, large staffs make it slightly easier for the school to take the strain.

The training agency's second line of attack is to publicise the rewards of the job. "It's an exciting job to have - heads set the pace and expectations, and can make a real difference to the community," said Frankie Sulke. "You can create the kind of environment where teachers and pupils do their best. There are plenty of good role models, and we will use them to promote the job."

Many heads agreed about the excitement and rewards of the job, commenting on the great variety of what they do from day to day, the pleasures of watching teachers and children grow and develop, the buzz of being part of a community and knowing the difference that the school can make to it.

But they all said that headship is an all-consuming job, cutting into family time and ruling out any social life during term. One head who doesn't have children, and two who have one child only, expressed their admiration for colleagues who manage to do the job with three or four children still at home. "I couldn't do it," says one. "I can't think how she manages," said the secretary of a head with three children.

It seems that the women who successfully combine parenting several children with headship have boundless energy and iron constitutions. Two heads with children said it was crucial to them that they had partners with more flexible jobs, who could be at home when necessary.

Professional considerations affecting women's decisions on whether to go for headship include workload. "Some of our members find it very rewarding," said David Hart, general secretary of the National Union of Head Teachers. "But many others find it very onerous.

"The job is subject to extreme pressure, wildly unrealistic expectations, bureaucracy and overload. That needs to be addressed by reducing the overload, increasing the support, and raising the salaries. With an average salary of #163;32,000 for primary heads, it's no wonder that many people think that the game is not worth the candle."

Frankie Sulke and two local authority officers all said there was no evidence of prejudice against women when governors were making appointments - though there were suggestions of prejudice against older women who had taken a career break when their children were young.

But there is still a need for governor training when appointments come up,dealing with equal opportunities issues such as race, gender and age. Birmingham is one authority that offers governor training in a fairly insistent manner when headships become vacant, involving role play which allows these issues to be discussed in a realistic context.

Whatever the reasons for the shortage of women coming forward for headships, the training agency is right to be worried. However, the situation may slowly be changing.

Headteachers say that the young women who are now coming into teaching are much more assertive and are looking for a successful career, not just a job. As fewer young men than young women are coming into teaching, so women may have a clearer field when going for the top jobs.

But that job has to seem attractive, manageable, and highly valued. All the Teacher Training Agency's promotion campaigns, courses and qualificatio ns will not help if, when they have weighed up the pros and cons, large numbers of women teachers continue to decide that a headteacher's job, without adequate pay, professional freedom, resources and administrative support, is just too unrewarding.

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