Figure on plan B to fill in the gaps

2nd March 2007 at 00:00
Once again the recruiting drums are sounding across the land. As if driven by a springtime biological urge, the jobs sections of The TES grow fatter by the week so that by the end of term they have to be taken to the staff room by fork-lift truck. Meanwhile, heads live in fear of the heart-sinking news that their best physicist is off to start a new life running a silkworm farm in Tajikistan.

'Twas not always thus. There was a time when an advert brought more sackloads of mail than a Blue Peter appeal, when it was harder to get a headship than a place on Celebrity Big Brother. What fun we had shortlisting in those days. Look, pink notepaper! Straight in the bin. A split infinitive? Off with his head!

Read the advertisements and see how hard we have to sell our schools now.

Every school is oversubscribed. Every one successful. (Psst! You want a laptop? Relocation allowance? Head massage?) I have already advertised eight vacancies this term but am early enough for the pick of this year's newly qualified staff. I live in fear of post-Easter resignations.

I've just appointed a brilliant head of maths, but from a field of just 10 candidates, many of them with indifferent degrees from indifferent universities. ("Ten!" I hear you exclaim. "The last time I advertised for a head of maths we didn't even hear from the three-eyed Lithuanian match-seller who applies for everything.") Department heads are crucial to the success of the school, yet out of all the vacancies we have had recently, these are the hardest to fill. Why?

Advanced skills teachers, the national strategies and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust have given many an alternative progression route. The upper pay scale has offered a reasonable salary without the searing accountability that department heads carry.

We all know who gets a kicking when departmental results drop or parents complain. I knew a woodwork teacher who used to stand a recalcitrant boy on a bench with a plastic dustbin over his head which he would periodically thump with a piece of four-by-two. Many heads of department know just how the boy must have felt.

We expect too much from them in too little time. They used to be called middle managers, but in how many other businesses are people expected to manage a team while still doing the same job as the people they manage? Then we named them middle leaders. That's clever: leadership is vision, and you can get ideas in the bath, so you need less non-contact time for that.

Then along came teaching and learning responsibility allowances. Now the allowance is for neither managing nor leading, but just for having responsibility. No need for any extra time for that at all, and no wonder fewer people want the job.

It's a tragedy! We need to look after heads of department, give them more creative control over the curriculum and spread the message that leading a department is the best job in the world. What other job gives you so much influence over how young people develop a love of your subject? What other job enables you to nurture and motivate such a close team of teachers?

Meantime, we will continue to use plan B to fill jobs at the end of the year. Our snatch-squad visits the local beach looking for holidaying teachers: they are easily identified, organising the volleyball and supervising the ice-cream queue. We photograph them in their Speedos and threaten to publish in their local paper unless they sign a contract on the spot. It never fails. There's nothing like a staff shortage to stimulate creative thinking.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge community college in Devon

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