THEY are the driving force behind school improvements, the glue that keeps everyone working together.
But with increasing expectations and responsibilities, headteachers are also first in the firing line.
Recent figures show 13 Oxfordshire schools are currently without a headteacher.
While at least five of those have made appointments for the new school year, and numbers represent about five per cent of all maintained county schools, those working in education have expressed concern over the issue.
Oxfordshire county councillor Michael Waine, a governor at Bicester’s Cooper School and a former headteacher, said: “Schools are, in some cases, finding it extremely difficult to recruit headteachers.
“In Oxford city there are schools that are on their third or fourth advert for head.
“My concern is there are plenty of quality people out there who are not willing to take the high-level risk of moving into a school, particularly our more challenging schools, where they know the person who is going to get the chop will be the headteacher.”
He added: “At the moment the dam is holding, how much longer it will hold for I don’t know.”
Simon Spiers is headteacher of King Alfred’s School, Wantage, which is part of the new Oxfordshire Teaching Schools Alliance and executive headteacher of St Nicholas Primary School, East Challow.
Mr Spiers said: “There is an awful lot of very public pressure on headteachers and it is widely reported that when things don’t seem to be going well in the school, one of the options is to sack the head.
“Lots of people would make great heads but are loathe to because of those pressures.”
But he said in Oxfordshire, the issues were being addressed.
A course, “Growing Future Leaders”, has been developed for senior staff in secondary and primary schools to help them get ready for headship, while new headteachers are being supported by more experienced leaders.
Mr Spiers said: “The best way forward is to grow our new headteachers from within the county and convince them it’s the best job in the world and can be really exciting and rewarding.”
One such head in waiting is Andy Browne, who has been working as interim headteacher at St Nicholas Primary School, East Challow, since October 2012.
Prior to that he was assistant head at King Alfred’s, and is hoping to be given the permanent position at St Nicholas.
He said: “I have been incredibly well supported and I think that has made a huge difference to my effectiveness and also with coping with the pressures and demands of the job.
“I have been coached by Simon, our school improvement officer from the local authority has worked closely with me and I have been on courses for new heads. I have also been really well supported by other headteachers in the local area.
“It has been demanding and challenging and I can see why people might be put off having to take on that level of responsibility.
“But having said that, to be in a position where you are leading a school and can shape it is fantastic.”
Another senior leader ready to take the next step is Phil Goldsworthy, currently acting headteacher at Middle Barton Primary School.
He leaves the school in the hands of newly-appointed headteacher Jane Tailby from September, when he will take on his first permanent headship at Christopher Rawlins Primary School, Adderbury.
Mr Goldsworthy, who has been deputy headteacher at Bishop Loveday Primary School for five years, said there had been no difficulty finding candidates for Middle Barton, which has just come out of special measures.
He said: “There is a lot of pressure, but it is a very exciting time in education.
“Those changes and challenges are quite difficult to take for some people but it is that chance to really make a difference.
“My experiences at Middle Barton would certainly not put me off at all.”
Four of the primary schools without a permanent leader are Church of England schools.
Diocese of Oxford director of education Anne Davey said for some schools, an interim head was the best option while a long-term solution was found.
Mrs Davey said: “We are aware the numbers are up again this year compared to last year and we are getting a bit more movement and we are also aware of the fact we have a lot of people retiring.
“We can see the pressures of increased standards and academisation, but it would be too simplistic to say the movement is because of those pressures.
“We are confident we are getting the headteachers we need to get when we recruit.
“What we won’t do is let a school take on a leader where we saw we can’t get a better one so this one will do.”
She said that with the relatively new move towards executive headteachers taking responsibility for several schools, the conventional role of a headteacher in smaller schools was changing – but this posed its own problems.
She said: “We haven’t had years of training existing heads to the next level up, so there is a potential concern that executive leadership is increasing so we do need to look at our support and training packages to meet those needs.” There can be other challenges in terms of recruitment, For David Cryer, chairman of governors at Uffington Primary, School, selecting headteacher Amy Carnell last year was one of the toughest processes in his experience as a governor – because the field was so strong.
He said: “My difficulty was choosing between a high calibre of candidates.”
Uffington is a village school in an attractive location which has been rated good by Ofsted.
Schools in less-desirable areas where results are tailing off and the threat of “requires improvement” and “inadequate” judgements hanging over them may find it much harder to get the right person.
Melinda Tilley, Oxfordshire County Council children, education and families cabinet member, said she was not concerned.
She said: “I think headteachers and aspiring headteachers that are good at what they do will not be put off and they shouldn’t be.
“The teaching school alliance will help us grow our own headteachers.”