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Three heads walk the plank

But there are some signs that the post of prep-school head - once billed as the 'most vulnerable in education' - is becoming more secure. Biddy Passmore reports.

THE position of female heads in the independent sector was looking increasingly precarious this week, as it emerged that three more had been forced out of their jobs during the summer.

Susan Cave, appointed as the first female head of Ripon Cathedral choir school, was told by governors that her position was untenable and resigned shortly before she was to take up the post at the beginning of the month.

Parents threatened to withdraw children from the school after discovering that her husband, a solicitor, was being investigated by the Law Society (his certificate to practise has since been restored). Four of the governors, including the dean of the cathedral, have resigned in protest at the action they say was forced on them by parents.

"The parents held a shotgun to the governors' heads," said governor Hugh Millington. "It was a very shabby way to go about things."

In a second case, with similarities to that of Maureen Ribbins, the head of Woldingham school in Surrey whose enforced departure was reported last week, the head of St Margaret's school in Aberdeen resigned suddenly in August for "personal reasons". Anne Ritchie had been head at the school for two years.

And in Wiltshire, the head of Stonar School for girls has been forced by governors to resign. Caroline Holman had been in post three years, but had been unable to reverse a decline in numbers.

She was asked to go during the summer term and apparently agreed to resign on condition that she could complee the school year. Parents only learnt she had gone two days before the start of term on September 11.

The move at Stonar, famous for its riding facilities and for holding the annual British Inter-schools One Day Event, is understood to have followed concern from parents, staff and governors.

But prep-school heads, who meet next week in Bristol for their annual conference, will be pleased to learn that, once in post, their position is generally becoming a little more secure.

Described only two years ago as "the most vulnerable position in education" by David Hanson, education officer of the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools, the job of prep school head now seems to carry less risk of an abrupt departure than it did when six were being ousted by their governors or proprietor every year.

Mr Hanson attributes the improvement to better training of both heads and governors and to the decline over the past two decades in the number of proprietorial schools.

"Our aspiring heads course is now extremely tough," he said. "If they can hack three days of the course they're more likely to survive when they become a head. And our induction course, which is mandatory for all new heads, is very practically grounded and covers working alongside a governing body."

He said trouble usually arose because of a breakdown in communication with governors, staff or parents rather than because the head had made a big mistake. It was vital to call in the association early so that it could help sort matters out - or, if not, help to plan "a professional and sensible exit" for the head, such as a move to another post in education.

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