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Uneasy lie the heads

Is it any wonder that once again there is a shortage of good candidates for headship, particularly in inner city schools? Or that growing numbers of headteachers and their colleagues feel so bowed and battered (sometimes literally) that they are queuing up for early retirement, either by choice or due to stress-related ill-health? Less than one teacher in five now continues to retirement age; rather more - one in four - go early because of breakdown or illness.

At the National Association of Headteachers' annual conference, and with the opening of the official inquiry into the Dunblane tragedy, the focus this week fell upon the increasing violence heads and their colleagues are prone to at the hands of both children and adults. There may be few hard figures to substantiate heads' apprehensions, but too many have experienced out-of-control pupils or aggressive confrontations with parents to dismiss fears that the job may now involve risks of injury or worse, as in the case of Philip Lawrence.

So far the Government's response on school security and exclusions gives them little sense of support. Quite the opposite, in fact. Schools suffer from the general deterioration in restraint throughout society exemplified by road rage, the rising tide of delinquency, crime and thoughtless yobbishness. No doubt these have various social, moral and economic roots. But respect for the professional dedication of teachers and headteachers has also been seriously undermined by a decade or more of official and semi-official vilification. Politicians and their officials may not have set out to undermine discipline in schools, any more than the Government intended to encourage xenophobic soccer hooliganism with its stand in Europe over BSE. But the constant drip-drip of public criticism and the vaunting of parental rights over professional judgments cannot fail to lower the public esteem for schools and thereby diminish the authority of headteachers.

Of course, holding headteachers accountable for the management of their schools has been a cornerstone of government policy, and rightly so. But the way this has been done has contributed to the rush of heads for the exit and the dearth of candidates for their replacement. Proper and fair accountability is one thing. But quite another is an inspection system or performance table which effectively holds heads responsible for standards while taking little account of the starting points of their pupils. Such crude comparisons simply add to the burdens of headship in inner city schools by unjustly demoralising staff, even if they are achieving miracles against the odds.

Subjecting heads in general to public obloquy when some stumble on management tasks which they never sought in the first place, and for which they have received little training or support, is not calculated to improve job satisfaction either. When handing out the criticism, the Office for Standards in Education and the Government tend to overlook the fact that in just a handful of years, with little consultation and no additional funding worth speaking of, headteachers have made a reality of local management, self-government, the national curriculum and its tests, school-based initial teacher training, teacher appraisal, the integration of pupils with a wider range of learning difficulties and the code of practice on special needs. At the same time examination results have improved to an all-time record.

They managed this, moreover, when pay settlements were not being fully funded and spending per pupil in real terms has been falling. As a result, many have also had such dubious pleasures as neglecting their crumbling schools, not providing sufficient books and materials, increasing class sizes and dispensing with the services of loyal and dedicated colleagues simply to balance the books. To say such cuts have not added to the fun of the job either would be an understatement.

And in return for a 50 hour week or more, the average primary headteacher earns less than Pounds 30,000. Is it enough given the responsibility for welfare and learning of hundreds of children and the management of budgets which can be millions of pounds? The answer to that is one the Government should understand; that of the market.

Heads are voting with their feet - or at least, their pensions. Or perhaps it is the allure of the Pounds 80,000 said to be earned by some for a little light OFSTED inspecting that is emptying their studies? If it is, as least those who remain will have the comfort of knowing they may be inspected by someone who has done the job.

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