The Association of School and College Leaders in England has highlighted the challenges facing headteachers and the impact on recruitment and retention.

A scan of recruitment websites confirms a similar situation in Scotland.

Virtually every Scottish council has multiple vacancies for heads and deputes across all sectors. Given that excellent leadership is essential for high-quality learning, what is the impact on our young people?

Loading article content

Shortages of headteachers and deputes is not new. In 2009, research on behalf of the Scottish Government by the universities of Glasgow and Cambridge reported a fall in the number of applicants. There was an average of two applicants per post in Aberdeen and 7.4 in Dundee, for instance. It was particularly difficult to find headteachers for small primary schools. Forty five of the 109 advertised head and depute posts had been vacant for more than three months.

Recruitment websites suggests the situation has not improved significantly. Some councils are finding it difficult to recruit heads for even their largest secondary schools, particularly if the schools present challenges such as consistently low attainment. Aberdeenshire, for example has difficulty attracting applicants for headships of several of its largest secondary schools, although relocation costs are clearly a factor.

The causes are not hard to find. The job is becoming progressively more difficult. Researchers have described "role obesity", implying the unmanageable expansion of headteachers' responsibilities.

Additional workload and responsibility discourage prospective applicants, particularly for small rural primaries where the head juggles day-to-day management, curriculum development and teaching children,

Across all sectors, eroded pay differentials provide little incentive to take on posts with additional burdens. Recently, the headship of a leading community high school offered a superficially attractive salary of just under £70,000. When divided by the hours needed to have been put in, it probably appeared less attractive.

Headteachers find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Staff and union representatives often find it convenient to delegate upwards to "management", who also fulfil the role of scapegoat when things go wrong. Increasingly, heads are subject to stressful external scrutiny from parents, council officers, inspectors and, at times, the media. Heads are sometimes resentful that few of those who subject them to scrutiny have experience of the demands of the job.

In conversation, the number of headteachers who express frustration and powerlessness surprises me. Many feel increasingly held to account for what happens or does not happen in their schools yet are unable to take prompt action where required, for example in matters of finance, staffing and competence. Their frustration will inevitably impact on the future quantity and quality of applicants for headteacher posts. There is an urgent need to consider further development of the role of the headteacher in ways that maintain responsibility and accountability but also involve enhanced empowerment.