A London borough's failure to recruit a chief officer has highlighted a nationwide problem. Robert Gretton and Neil Levis report.
After two adverts and advice from a consultant Waltham Forest was last month forced to revise the salary it is prepared to pay for a chief adviser because it could not attract enough applicants. The vacant post in the north-east London borough was given a pay rise of pound;9,000 and the lure of a three-year fixed-term contract.
The situation reveals the problems faced by local education authorities as they edge their way back into prominence, assuming more responsibility for target-setting and monitoring standards. Stephen Byers, the schools standards minister, told the Local Government Association in March: "The basis for the new contract with LEAs and schools will be education development plans. They will set out what a LEA can do to help and challenge schools in their local areas to raise standards across the board."
Since 1979, town halls have had their wings not so much clipped as tied behind their backs by successive governments, so they have cut back their inspection and advisory staffs. Now they must compete to recruit people with the calibre and experience to keep a watchful eye on every schools' performance.
The trouble is that advisers' and inspectors' pay has slipped in comparison with that of headteachers. Bob Hogg, the man who created the vacancy in Waltham Forest to go to Southampton as chief education officer, was paid on a pay scale of pound;46,000 to pound;49,000.
The authority's first advertisement offered pound;46,000: only two people applied and local councillors did not consider them suitable. A second advertisement attracted only one further applicant.
Andy Barson, president of NAEIAC, the advisers' association, knows why.
"If you consider the job envisaged and the pressure involved - accountable for standards in all the schools in the authority - then it's not surprising there have been so few people willing to apply.
"If Waltham Forest wants an exceptional head to take up this post, he's probably on pound;50,000 plus already. pound;10,000 is a significant jump, but the new role for LEAs in school improvement demands people with ability, knowledge and experience. They will have to pay for it."
Waltham Forest is not the only London authority that has had difficulty recruiting advisers. Lambeth and Tower Hamlets both filled similar posts only after they consulted MSL, a specialist recruitment agency. It was MSL that suggested a rise from pound;46,000 to pound;55,000 for the Waltham Forest job and set about finding suitable candidates.
Authorities are finding it cheaper and more efficient to consult such agencies. "We spend less because we almost always succeed in finding someone at the first attempt," said MSL's managing director, Bernard Doyle. "We provide a greater choice of suitable candidates and we cost less then advertising in the conventional way." His business with local authorities has been growing steadily over the past three years.
Andy Barson at the advisers' association has noticed a rise in pay for jobs over the past six months in response to the number and quality of available candidates. Advisers pay is fixed according to the Soulbury pay scales which are revised annually but allow local authorities some discretion.
"I look in The TES and see neighbouring adverts where the pay scales differ by three to six points. I am appalled at some of the pay ranges," he says.
Undoubtedly, quality of life is an important factor. In pleasant rural areas, pay is low and applicants are plenty. Which is one reason why Waltham Forest has had to put its salary up.