Just how equal are opportunities for women as we approach a new millennium? Carole Whitty, a secondary head for eight years, believes it is more difficult than ever for women to become heads. "We are now working in an increasingly competitive environment, which makes it harder for governors to see that women are just as capable as men. Some of my female colleagues also doubt if they want to be in the harder-edged world of league tables and 'dog-eat-dog' at admissions times."
The truth is that women are still way behind men in the headship stakes. In England and Wales, they make up 82 per cent of the teaching force in primary schools but only 52 per cent of primary heads. In secondary schools, the corresponding figures are 49 per cent against 24 per cent. So what is holding women back? "The trouble with secondary headship is that if you look round any room, you're surrounded by men. It's a bit like a boys' club and you have to be pretty determined," says Carole Whitty, head of Carisbrooke School on the Isle of Wight.
"As a deputy, I was the only woman in a senior management team of 10. When I was appointed head, the headline in the local paper was 'Mother of two gets top job'. I found it offensive; it was almost as though it was a freaky thing for a woman to do."
Ms Whitty feels women need encouragement to come forward and to recognise their own strengths. She herself was persuaded to climb the management ladder by female colleagues, but it was recognition from a male local education authority inspector which gave a kick-start to Monica Galt's career. Now head of King's Road Primary in Manchester, she was persuaded to apply for a deputy headship by an inspector who assured her she had the necessary qualities. "It made a tremendous impact that someone with credibility whom I respected told me I could do it."
She now sees it as her duty to give the same encouragement to her staff:
"If you see someone with potential, it's your responsibility to push them. "
Carole Whitty thinks women who plan their careers have an added sense of purpose. "I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do in education and I could only do it from a position of leadership," she says.
Women need to gain a wide range of experience as they work their way up, says Kay Driver, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. They should look for posts where they'll have responsibility for the curriculum and the budget, instead of the pastoral care traditionally earmarked for women.
Networking with other women can provide valuable support. Carole Whitty's role as an executive member of the National Association of Head Teachers gives her the chance to meet fellow heads at conferences and local union meetings. "If things do go wrong, it's easy to find a shoulder to cry on," she says.
Although some teacher unions give equal opportunities a higher profile than others - some union officials contacted by The TES did not know who was responsible for equal opportunities in their organisation - a few offer specific support for women. SHA and the National Union of Teachers have both encouraged networking by organising conferences dealing with the issues women managers face. These unions also run training courses slanted at women because they recognise that this is the key to boosting women's confidence.
Unfortunately, other training opportunities seem to be dwindling. Senior managers in schools no longer have the chance to take a term's sabbatical for training, and secondments to business or industry are rarer, partly because of the pressures imposed by league tables. Kay Driver says governors are reluctant to release staff because they are worried about the effect on the school's results.
In Rotherham, the LEA decided to launch its own management training aimed at women when a local teacher pointed out the huge imbalance in senior management. Rae Ansley, a textiles and fashion teacher who is an executive member of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, discovered that in Rotherham around 60 per cent of the teachers in senior posts earning more than Pounds 30,000 a year were men, although women made up 62 per cent of the total teaching force.
Family commitments are one reason why women are deterred from entering management, according to Hilary Emery, dean of education at Worcester College of Higher Education. "Teaching is one of the most un-parent-friendly professions there is," she says. "How many teachers were able to see their child's Christmas performance?" She fears that women who are already hard-pressed at school and trying to juggle family responsibilities will be less likely to put themselves forward for the new National Professional Qualification for Heads, if the courses take place at weekends. One solution could be to allow senior managers to job-share while their children are small (see "Fair shares", top).
Kay Driver believes the answer is for the Department for Education and Employment and the Teacher Training Agency to adopt family-friendly policies: "The National Health Service has a women's unit which ensures their needs are taken into account throughout the service. SHA has suggested this approach to the DFEE and the TTA but they are not interested."