WOMEN have overtaken men in the race to become headteachers for the first time in the history of state education.
Unprecedented numbers of women are breaking through the "glass ceiling" to take up top posts in primaries and secondaries, according to two new surveys of the teaching profession.
Women now run 57 per cent of the 20,000 primary schools in England and Wales and are making rapid ground in the 4,000-strong secondary sector. In 1994 only 22 per cent of secondary headships were held by women, but this figure rose to 27 per cent by last year, according to the Department for Education and Employment.
The change is happening fastest in London where women now seem to bag more than seven out of eight primary headships. Professor Alistair Ross, a University of North London researcher who has been monitoring recruitment patterns in six of the capital's boroughs, said: "It's quite astonishing. You can see the male: female ratio change year by year. The proportion of male headteachers is declining very rapidly."
Nationally, the proportion of women primary heads has recently been rising at about two percentage points a year and it may therefore break the 60 per cent barrier next year.
Professor John Howson, a leading teacher-recruitment consultant, says that an extra 200 women heads were appointed by maintained schools during the year to March 1998 while the number of male heads dropped by 700.
"The number of women holding deputy head posts has also increased," he says. "More than four in five deputy heads in primary schools are now women, although amalgamations and closures have resulted in the number of deputy heads falling by 400.
"In secondary schools, women hold just over one in three deputy headships, but the loss of posts means that there were around 100 fewer women in such positions in 1998 than in the previous year."
The University of North London study has demonstrated how the number of men being appointed to primary headships has plummeted over the past 15 years. During the 1980s and early 1990s men were being selected for just over a third of headships - a disproportionately high figure, given their overall representation in the primary teaching force. But between 1993 and 1996 that proportion fell to 24 per cent and over the past two years it fell to less than 12 per cent.
Professor Ross said: "In the six boroughs we have looked at males represent less than 15 per cent of the primary teaching force. That is about 2 per cent less than the national figure. But it is also possible that male teachers no longer see headship as the career opportunity that it once was. Headship has changed a lot over the past eight or nine years."
Elizabeth Burn, another University of North London researcher who talked to primary teachers about their career aspirations, says: "More men are getting into supply teaching and even setting up their own agencies."
However, she does not believe that women teachers have finally achieved the equality they have long demanded. She notes that other parts of the country, such as the North-east of England, do not appear to be seeing the dramatic shift in appointment patterns that is evident in London.
Nadia Dawson, 46, pictured above right, who got her first headship in January, at Osgodby primary, near Market Raven, Lincolnshire, says: "There have been so many changes in the way women work.
"Before, women might have seen teaching as a way of making a bit of extra money. But things have changed and these days teaching demands a much bigger commitment."