Who'd want to be a headteacher?

11th March 2005 at 00:00
The pressures of running a school have never been greater so it is no surprise if there is a shortage, says John Muir

Politicians, pupils, parents and teachers agree that the key to the success of any school is the personal and professional quality of the headteacher.

So recent pronouncements by the Education Minister that he was looking at ways to make the recruitment of headteachers "more rigorous" should be applauded.

However, the best laid plans of even well-meaning ministers gang aft agley.

A look at the recruitment section of The TES Scotland in recent months shows an alarming number of readvertisements for headteacher posts across the country. This applies as much to many one-time "desirable" posts in our cities as it does to those in rural areas.

With the McCrone agreement, salaries are more attractive, particularly for primary posts; and there is more management time and class contact relief for class-committed heads than ever before. So what is the problem?

Speaking to colleagues in different parts of Scotland and to suitable candidates for posts in my own and in other authorities, the message is much the same. Salaries for those who stay at the chalkface are better than ever before. The pressure that comes with the job of headteacher is a turn-off for many. They see their colleagues unable to cope and, for a growing number, quality of life has now overtaken ambition.

High on the list of concerns is the expanding culture of audit and inspection towards the goal of quality assurance. Schools always expected to be hit at some point in the cycle by an HMIE inspection, but many heads talk of the increased pressure on them and on their staff by the present approach. Secondary departments have to ensure that exam results rise to meet national expectations, whatever their circumstances. We owe it to all our pupils that we help them to reach their full potential, but it remains a great pressure on teachers nevertheless.

In the primary sector, there is the relentless round of Care Commission inspections of pre-school provision, often twice in a session. There is the likelihood that, in addition to all these, there will be a joint HMIECare Commission visit, which can mean that a school rarely has time to draw breath from one year to the next.

It is not just about being under the microscope for a day or even a week; the headteacher has to complete extensive forms and answer countless questions even before anyone steps over the door. Then an action plan has to be drawn up and reports prepared for follow-up visits by the local authority or HMIE to evaluate progress. Everyone agrees that we must strive for excellence but, to use the old aphorism, "weighing does not fatten the pig".

Even those who do cope with the pressures of quality assurance cite growing indiscipline and lack of support from parents as issues that would make them give up their job. Parents are more ready to complain, almost to the point of harassment, about what were once seen as trivial issues.

Concerns about bullying and disruptive behaviour in the classroom are no longer the preserve of the large inner city secondary, if they ever were.

Headteachers in small rural school with a handful of pupils are speaking out about the problem.

There is certainly a need to prepare headteachers for their management role. With devolved budgets requiring more than a measure of business acumen and the fact that even so-called one-teacher heads now have several staff to lead, it is not a job easily taken on straight from the classroom.

However, not all prospective applicants have the time, or the inclination, to do the Scottish Qualification for Headship. It has been calculated that more than half of headteachers will retire within the next 10 years (assuming they stay the course). At present rates of graduation from the SQH programme, we are unlikely to be able to recruit qualified candidates to fill the many posts that will become vacant.

Even if all of the above is not a turn-off for prospective headteachers, some are reluctant to move house, family and partner so that they can achieve their ambition. This should not be the case within cities and the more populated areas, but it is the message we are receiving from some when they see otherwise attractive posts in rural authorities.

Action to raise the stakes and improve the quality of headteachers through more rigorous selection surely assumes that there will be at least sufficient numbers of quality applicants in the first place. Ministers, HMIE and local authorities must first address the concerns of the profession, who see staff in promoted posts burning out before their time.

McCrone has shown that raising salaries is only a step in the right direction; but, no matter how high you toss the coin, it always comes up "heads - you lose".

John Muir is a quality development officer with Highland Council. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the authority.

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