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'We're not supermarkets'

Private-sector models of succession planning don't suit schools, says Alan Wells

go to any governors' conference and succession planning is bound to be on the agenda its importance usually justified by a shortage of candidates for headteacher posts. That shortage is likely to hit a peak between 2009 and 2011.

The crisis in head recruitment is due in part to the high number of teachers in their fifties due to retire in the next few years. This is matched by a relative dearth of teachers in their thirties and forties. Worryingly, many of these teachers don't fancy the job of headteacher for various reasons. Some don't want to lose contact with pupils; some don't want the accountability and what they see as a more managerial role; some want a decent work-life balance and doubt whether headship could offer it. Even where a teacher is ambitious, research suggests it takes about 20 years from starting as a newly qualified teacher to taking a headship.

But will time spent on succession planning make a difference? Those who argue for the importance of succession planning by governors often cite the private sector. I have nothing against the private sector, but holding up the way it operates for the public sector to ape does irritate me because the examples so often used are the least applicable to the public sector. Also annoying is that analogies of succession planning in the private sector usually point towards large firms such as BP or Sainsbury's.

I have been to more than 4,000 schools in the past few years and I find it hard to spot the similarities between these firms and schools. The average primary employs relatively few people, but is much more closely involved with its "customers" the pupils than BP or Sainsbury's. Secondaries have more staff and more complex management structures but probably have more in common (although not much) with a local branch of Sainsbury's than with the company as a whole.

What usually gets missed out in this urge to follow the private sector in succession planning are the very different constraints on organisations in the two sectors. A large-scale private-sector firm has almost total freedom in appointing a chief executive, so long as their face fits with the major shareholders. There is usually no public advert, and succession is about as competitive as a succession in the royal family. There may be all sorts of open competition but you wouldn't guess it from reading the business press.

Schools have a very different set of constraints. Headteacher jobs have to be advertised usually nationally and appointments must comply with a set of equal opportunities procedures and practices. There has to be open competition with an interview, and strict criteria have to be followed. Woe betide a governing body that doesn't do it right or makes a mistake.

If all of these requirements were swept aside, schools could emulate the private sector. Governors could "groom" staff working in the school to succeed the head, as well as trawl around externally if they thought there was no suitable internal candidate. But what would the complex set of "stakeholders" of a school feel about this unequal opportunities approach? How would parents feel about someone shoehorned in with no competition? And would following succession planning practices in the private sector make the appointment of a head any more effective?

Appointing a head is never easy and we need to move on from old-fashioned approaches that have hardly changed in the post-war years. Recruitment procedures need to be improved, not least because they too often result in the appointment of the wrong people. But there have been many high-profile "succession planned" appointments in the private sector where the person appointed didn't last because they weren't successful. They usually leave with a sizeable pay-off. If that aspect of the private-sector approach could be adopted by schools, the head shortage might soon disappear.

Alan Wells is chair of governors at Willow Brook primary school in Waltham Forest, east London. He writes here in a personal capacity

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