Heads count

23rd January 2009 at 00:00
Recruiting for the top job is not as easy as it seems, says John Howson

You would think it would be a simple operation to ensure every school has a headteacher. After all, the main time for advertising headteacher vacancies is between January and the end of March. Those appointed will normally take up office in September. But, over the past few years, and particularly since the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) became mandatory for first-time heads, the situation has been anything but straightforward.

There are four main sectors to consider - primary, secondary, special schools and the evolving group of academies. As teaching is a closed profession, future headteachers must come from among those in the grades immediately below who have been selected to undertake the NPQH. There must be enough of these candidates, in the right areas and with sufficient experience of the types of school that are recruiting a new head, to satisfy the demand.

During 2008 some 2,600 state-funded schools across England and Wales advertised for a new head. Of these, about 400 were secondary schools (including more than 50 academies), and 100 or so were in the special school sector. The remainder were in the primary sector. Schools ranged in size from the tiny primary school with fewer than 50 pupils to secondary schools on many sites and with more than 2,000 pupils. Surprisingly, there were not as many federations as might have been expected, where the head is required to lead several different schools.

An unacceptably large number of schools failed to find a new head when they first advertised. More than a third of advertisements placed by schools looking for primary heads during the 2007-08 school year were re- advertisements. This percentage was lower in the secondary and special school sectors, but still at a level to cause concern.

Why should primary schools find it so difficult to recruit a new headteacher? Part of the problem lies in the bunching of so many adverts between January and March when half of all posts appear. Candidates knowing that they are likely to find a headship relatively easily only bother to apply for a small number of posts. This creates small fields and some schools are passed over completely by potential candidates. Where there are no applications, and it does happen, schools have to re- advertise.

There is the complication that a larger percentage of primaries are faith schools when compared with schools in other sectors. The decline in regular churchgoing among the key age groups for new heads might also become an issue to those planning for the future of church schools.

Primary schools mostly recruit from their local area, and schools near the coast, with only a partial hinterland from which to draw candidates, may be at a disadvantage.

However, more worrying is the loss of more than 2,500 deputy head posts in the primary sector between 2001 and 2008, according to figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. This equates to a 17 per cent drop in the number of deputies in the primary sector. Many of these posts were lost when separate infant and junior schools were amalgamated into a primary school with only one head and one deputy. Fewer deputy posts means less opportunity to gain the experience necessary to progress to a headship. Governors seem to expect candidates to have been a deputy head even for the smallest schools.

Recruitment problems for primary heads used to be confined to London and parts of the South East. Now it is a national problem with few regions of England unaffected. The situation remains much better in Wales, but is still particularly challenging in parts of the Home Counties.

Salary is not likely to be one of the reasons to deter would-be heads, especially in the secondary sector, where remuneration packages in excess of pound;100,000 have become commonplace, if not yet the norm. In the primary sector, salaries have been boosted by the addition of day care and other facilities that need the leadership of the head, helping to increase the salary range for the school. So there is every reason to expect salaries to become even more competitive across the sector, partly to reflect the challenges facing schools looking for a new head.

Fortunately, recruiting to other leadership positions, such as deputy and assistant headships, is less of a problem for schools. Last year, schools advertised more than 2,300 deputy head positions and nearly 1,200 assistant headships. Unlike head and deputy posts, these vacancies do not need to be advertised nationally and the figures are more difficult to track. Despite these large numbers, relatively few schools failed to make an appointment, so it doesn't seem to be leadership per se that is unattractive, but rather headship and, in particular, primary headship.

Almost five years after the NPQH became mandatory for first-time headteachers, it's alarming that the process of matching candidates to vacancies is working less well than when I first started my research 20 years ago.

As the teaching profession moves from a profile that was heavily weighted towards teachers in the second half of their careers towards one where more than a third of teachers will have fewer than 10 years' experience, new recruitment issues for leadership posts will arise.

The challenge for all involved with school recruitment is to ensure there are sufficient candidates in the right place and with the appropriate qualifications necessary to fill all the vacancies. There is sufficient evidence to support the vital role of the headteacher in the leadership of a school and every school has the right to expect to be able to recruit a new head when necessary.

John Howson is director of Education Data Surveys at TSL Education Ltd. Next week he will look at jobs for newly qualified teachers.

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