A council competing with other authorities to find senior staff is considering radical steps, reports Angus Macdonald
Highland Council is trying to combat a looming crisis in finding new headteachers for half its schools over the next 10 years, including a pound;1 million leadership development programme. It plans to headhunt and fast-track potential heads from within existing staff.
The council is involved in a battle with other local authorities for declining numbers of senior staff willing to take on the top jobs which have become increasingly complicated during the past 20 years.
Even vastly improved salaries of pound;45,000 for the headteachers of the larger primary schools and pound;70,000 for secondary school heads are failing to attract the right candidates because of the perceived pressures in the headteacher's job, according to the council.
Bruce Robertson, the director of education, said: "In 2005, we had 20 primary headteacher vacancies. Seven vacancies were advertised twice, one was advertised three times and one advertised four times.
"In the secondary sector, we had six vacancies of which two were advertised twice and one, for Nairn, was advertised on three occasions. That itself involves us in significant costs, because the advertisements can cost around pound;3,500 a time.
"The headteacher's post is extremely important, and it is vital for schools and their communities that we find the right people."
Mr Robertson said that, in common with other teaching staff, the age profile of experienced senior staff meant that education authorities were trying to recruit from a small and decreasing pool of candidates.
Mr Robertson said: "Twenty years ago, the headteacher's role was in the school concentrating on learning and teaching, things such as exam results and all that people would expect in a school.
"Now they have to deal with socio-economic issues in the community that affect the school, and they are much more in the public eye. Scottish society is far more complex than ever before. In some of the smaller primary schools, some headteachers find it very difficult, if not impossible, to meet the challenge of teaching and carrying the administrative duties of headship as well.
"We have tried to do something about that by creating clusters of primary schools, where two or three schools come under the one headteacher, who has no class teaching commitment.
"This is working well in Badenoch and Strathspey where Newtonmore, Gergask and Dalwhinnie have come under the one headteacher, and in Skye and Lochalsh and in Ross and Cromarty, where a number of similar schemes are working successfully."
Highland is now planning for the longer term and is introducing its own leadership development programme, which it hopes will produce a stream of potential headteacher candidates over the next 10 years.
The council has 184 primary schools, four special schools and 29 secondary schools, with approximately 110 of the headteachers retiring before 2015.
Mr Robertson said: "Over the next three years, the council will spend pound;1m on a leadership development programme as part of its succession planning for headteachers' posts.
"Throughout this year, we will identify potential headteachers and fast-track them through the system. This will include experience in industry as well as experience across the range of duties expected of them in school."
He added: "Some of the existing deputy headteachers feel they don't want to go up the next rung on the ladder for professional and personal reasons.
They feel that the additional salary doesn't compensate for the additional pressures.
"This is a national issue and, although our rurality is a factor in discouraging recruitment, this is just as much of a problem in the central belt."
Highland plans to work with the Scottish Executive and the Hunter Foundation in developing the programme. It is also considering other factors such as the availability of housing for incoming heads, particularly in the remoter areas.
Mr Robertson said the Executive's Standard for Headship programme was "very helpful" but reinforced the point that there was a need to recruit quality candidates "as opposed to simply filling a vacant post in a school".
He continued: "Headteachers get paid some of the highest professional salaries and we must have quality applicants. If we have to re-advertise, we will (in order) to get the quality of person that young people deserve.
I am confident the number of potential applicants will grow over the next three years."