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Where should all the heads go?

Should all school leaders have a fixed-term contract? Peter Earley weighs the options

Do heads have a best-before date? A time after which their satisfaction with the job - and their ability to do it - starts to decline? Models of headteacher careers often refer to a "plateau stage" - a period of disenchantment after about six to 10 years in post. And if so, what happens after headship, other than early retirement, and how can they remain motivated to give of their best?

Dick Weindling and I have been following around 200 secondary heads who took up their first posts in 19823, and our latest findings have just been published in a book. Our research shows that of these heads, nine out of 10 were still in post after five years, and seven out of 10 were still in the same school in 1994.

Attempts in 2003 to re-establish contact with these same heads, about 20 years after our first survey, found, as might be expected, that most had retired but a handful (about 5 per cent) were still in their first headship post. Most people who get secondary-school headships stay there for the rest of their careers. This does bring stability, but is it healthy for the school?

Headship is more demanding than ever. The move towards distributed leadership will help to ease the burden, although the salary implications of this development continue to be ignored. But is it fair to expect people to do such a high-powered job for many years, and to continue to do it well?

This has traditionally been the case, but it must change. Headship is not the attractive job that it once was, but it might become more appealing if people did not see themselves having to work through to 60 or 65. We are already beginning to see greater recognition that some jobs, such as turning round a failing school, are short-term. Perhaps all headships should be seen as temporary or based on fixed-term contracts.

Many of those in our research saw the advantages that a fixed-term contract could bring, both for themselves and their schools, provided that proper guidance was available and alternative career avenues were viable options.

Salary differences between sectors - such as universities and local education authorities - and the constraints of pension arrangements are inhibiting factors. Would heads welcome the opportunity to return to the classroom for the last few years of their working lives?

In other parts of the world, such as New Zealand and the United States, heads are appointed on short-term contracts, and there have been calls for the same idea to be introduced in the UK. In fact, 1989 saw the first limited-period headship advertised in The TES.

The post, in a junior school, was for a five-year period and attracted a salary approximately 10 per cent higher than that normally received for the size of the school. Interestingly, this development has not become a trend.

In the US, school districts can redistribute or reallocate their principals for short periods (three to five years) as they see fit. This may be too short a period and encourage instability, but as our own LEAs become increasingly marginalised, and schools and governing bodies gain greater autonomy, perhaps central guidance is needed on this matter.

Should governing bodies have the freedom to offer short-term contracts? After all, some heads are appointed to "do a job", but they may not be seen as the best person to lead the next phase of a school's development.

We need to find ways in which the experience and expertise of serving heads can be used more creatively and flexibly. Even at a time of major educational reform, people need new challenges.

The National College for School Leadership's notion of the fifth stage of leadership - the consultant head or leader - is an attempt to address this.

Should this be an expected career progression rather than an option for the brave, or those whose health has been affected by doing such a stressful job for a long time?

It is not in the long-term interests of schools or heads themselves for them to be in the same post for long periods. Headship is not a job for those whose enthusiasm and energy has waned or weakened.

Understanding School Leadership is published by SagePCP, pound;18.95.

Life After Headship? is the title of Peter Earley's keynote lecture to the annual conference of the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society on October 4-6

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