Pay and workload are still the big barriers to hiring heads

11th March 2011 at 00:00
Recruitment may become a problem if cuts fail to account for schools' principal needs

It has been the mantra of politicians, HMIE, academics and others for years but is worth restating. The two factors in schools which make the greatest difference to outcomes for pupils are the quality of teachers and school leadership.

At the TESS pre-election debate last week, I highlighted that the number of applications for headship had nosedived in recent years. I asked each party what they would do to address this and to help develop and retain high-quality leaders. The responses were as you might expect, except perhaps the Cabinet Secretary's comment that applications for headship had levelled out. I find this hard to reconcile with previous information and current circumstances and would suggest that if it is correct, it is likely to be a "blip" in an otherwise downward curve.

Despite the 2009 research report and recommendations in relation to headteacher recruitment and retention, there has been little change which would make the job more appealing or more do-able. Indeed, quite the opposite. With Curriculum for Excellence gathering pace at the same time as budget cuts start to bite, the job of headteacher has become considerably more difficult and consequently, one would expect, less desirable.

So, what are the main barriers to recruitment? Of course, there are many but I'd like to focus on the two issues I consider to be the biggest systemic challenges.

The first is pay. Job-sizing is confusing. Those subject to it do not understand its workings and do not trust it. It has removed clear career pathways into school leadership. In tandem with a workload that prospective heads recognise as unmanageable and the threat to remove all salary conservation (which could mean promoted staff salaries change each year), there is not the financial incentive to take on headship. Whatever else is done to attract more applicants for headship, this issue must be addressed or that work will be in vain. This is an issue we will encourage the McCormac review to consider in some depth.

The second is the workload and expectations placed on heads. It is unrealistic and unreasonable to make cuts to staffing, budgets and management time, while placing the same expectations on schools. The scale of cuts facing the public sector over the next few years is eye-watering. This is much more than a trimming of budgets and it will have consequences for what schools, and school leaders, can achieve.

If cuts are to be made without a significant re-imagining of education provision, they must be accompanied by a close examination of what is expected of school leaders and a clear statement of what schools need to do and those things they can stop doing. Without this action, the problem of headteacher recruitment is likely to worsen and retention may well become an increasingly significant issue.

Greg Dempster, AHDS general secretary.

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