As the White Paper Excellence in Schools recognises, the quest for higher standards hinges crucially on the quality of management and leadership in schools. It is a bitter irony, then, that as many as 1,000 schools may be starting their first academic year under the new Government - a Government committed to making education its number one priority - without a permanent headteacher.
The dearth of leadership is such that even finding acting heads is proving difficult (page 8). The fact that some schools are turning to teacher supply agencies to re-hire some of those same heads who recently took early retirement underlines how far the current headship crisis was unnecessary and avoidable.
There is little sign as yet that the Government understands the reason for the present hiatus in school leadership: the disillusionment of so many heads - or, rather, senior staff, since the numbers of deputies bailing out in the past year increased by over 50 per cent. This leaves an even smaller cadre from which to appoint future heads. Among those senior staff who remain, there are signs of increasing unwillingnes s to shoulder the additional burdens of management.
Anthea Millett, chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, blames deputies' reluctance on their lack of preparation for the job. The new National Professional Qualificati on for Headteachers is meant to provide that - and will increase the numbers applying for headship, she claimed last week.
It is certainly good news that 5,000 have signed up for the first year. But many will take up to three years to complete the course. And for most deputies, the extra work and study entailed will be on top of the 55 hours a week or more that they already spend on the job. So it remains to be seen how many will actually stay on board.
If the NPQH is now to be regarded as the rite of passage for would-be heads, it will deter rather than encourage headship candidates in the short term while deputies undergo their formal "preparation". In the longer term, when it becomes a formal requirement, it is bound to reduce the numbers qualified for headship unless the incentives are improved.
It was no news to senior staff when the School Teachers Review Body survey found secondary heads work an average of 62 hours a week, almost 12 hours more than class teachers. Teachers in primary schools also know that for every ten hours they work, primary heads work 11. And that is not all.
One angry home counties head writing to The TES this week cited 16 reasons the job is no longer attractive. These include: unrealistic parental expectation s; rubbishing exams when the results are up; rubbishing teachers when the results are down; poor working conditions; superficial inspections; staff disillusionment about changes in retirement rules, flawed curriculum reforms and ever-changing exams; constant criticism by politicians and the press; loss of job security; inadequate pay differentials; being blamed for all society's ills; and social attitudes among parents and pupils which make the job much harder.
But if experienced teachers conclude the headship game is no longer worth the candle, will this open up the chief executive position in schools to those with management experience obtained elsewhere? The news that candidates for the new NPQH include non-teachers certainly increases the likelihood that future heads may be administrators, not educators.
There are already signs that school administrators and business managers aspire to headship - and appointments from industry are not unknown in independent schools. That the TTA seems willing to countenance heads with no experience in the classroom will undoubtedly enrage the profession and provide the 17th cause for disillusionment. But just as health service administrators are supposed to allow doctors to concentrate on medicine rather than running hospitals, it could be argued that leading professionals in schools should be allowed to get on with teaching.
Does school leadership simply demand general management skills? Or are understandings and values required which can only be learnt from training as a teacher and experience at the front of a classroom? This will be argued back and forth. School governors will arbitrate when it comes to choosing candidates. But as things stand they may have to settle for what they can get - in return for an arm, a leg and a BMW.