When Andrew Windsor got together with two other primary headteachers in Sefton, on the borders of Liverpool, 18 months ago, he wasn't surprised to find they faced common problems.
Mr Windsor is head of English Martyrs, one of 250 beacon schools nationwide, yet like his colleagues - Brian Mulroy, head of nearby St Monica's, and Mike Jones, head at Aintree Daven Hill - he knew he didn't have the skills to help his school keep up with the drive to assess performances and raise standards.
"We are trained as teachers not managers," he explains. "But as more and more of the job is now about leadership and management, it's easy to get dragged away from the focal point: the children and teachers in the classroom. We realised we were short of the skills we needed to improve those key areas, and there was no real training to provide them."
In particular, the trio felt that they lacked techniques for classroom assessment and feedback - crucial areas as threshold assessment, performance management and school self-evaluation top the DfEE's agenda. Because primary heads are so instrumental in developing and directing their schools, being able to analyse their teachers' strengths and weaknesses objectively and to give feedback is extremely hard, says Mr Windsor.
"Ofsted inspectors are trained in it, but not heads. It's not a natural skill. In fact, sometimes heads paint an overly rosy picture to their staff and then Ofsted comes in with a different view, and that shatters people."
The three heads decided to take matters into their own hands. A year later they won funding of nearly pound;60,000 from Heads You Win, a project for primary heads run by the Esmee Fairbairn Charitable Trust, to develop and conduct their own training courses in classroom observation and feedback skills.
"We wanted to be able to treat our teachers like professionals, as if we were managers in industry," says Mr Mulroy. After receiving training themselves from local education authority officials and consultants, the three devised their own programme, working on it during precious out-of-school hours. "We felt that if we needed to know these things, then perhaps others did too," says Mr Mulroy. The result was a training package for groups of fellow heads involving a weekend residential course and visits to beacon schools in other areas where newly acquired classroom observation skills could be practised.
"When we first went to other heads with the idea, they bit our hands off," says Mr Windsor. "They were desperate for it. Some of the heads we've trained were literally straight out of the classroom. Once you get into this job, it just becomes so all-consuming that your own development goes on the back burner and anything you do is fire fighting. We're trying to create a space to learn again. It's like going back to school."
The course encourages heads to look at a fictional school, and practise analysing lessons and assessing how well a particlar subject is being taught. Crucially, they also learn how to write reports. Roleplay techniques are used to simulate feedback sessions with a member of staff.
Three groups of heads from 18 primary schools have been through the process. "Because we're heads as well, there isn't the pressure of knowing someone's reporting back to an authority," says Mr Windsor. "It's like working with like."
Back in their schools, the positive effects are apparent. "I've got a far more focused picture of what's going on across the whole school now," says Mr Mulroy. "The whole point is to raise standards, and if I'm managing the staff better, it will improve the quality of teaching. The quality of learning will then go up."
The ultimate focus on the children's education is partly what won support from the Esmee Fairbairn Charitable Trust. Bernie Morgan, co-ordinator of the Heads You Win project at the trust, says all three heads work in an area of "fairly extreme deprivation". At some Sefton schools, as many as 70 per cent of pupils are on free school meals. "Yet the heads wanted to manage it themselves. They were dynamic enough to develop their own models and put in a lot of their own time, ultimately to benefit the children."
The 12 projects funded as part of the scheme (see box) focus on different aspects of a primary head's role, although the success of each will be measured by its impact on the pupils. In North Yorkshire, for example, a project co-ordinated by the local authority and involving 25 primaries is looking at ways for heads to develop links between teachers and parents.
Angela Smith, Heads You Win project co-ordinator for North Yorkshire county council, explains the thinking behind it. "Most parents want to help their children and are anxious to do it in the right way. We're interested in encouraging schools to develop partnerships which get parents more actively involved through appropriate activities at home, linked to the work done at school."
The local authority asked heads from schools in and around Sowerby, Scarborough and Skipton to draw up plans showing how they would make this work in their schools, and how their leadership skills would develop as a result. For Marilyn Tullock, head of Kirk Fenton primary school near Tadcaster, it's been a valuable exercise in planning and prioritising, and learning how to use limited resources to make a project succeed.
"The biggest thing is being able to delegate successfully," she says. "It's often a difficult thing to do in a small school." The Heads You Win funding has meant one "very talented" Year 1 teacher can take an afternoon's break from the classroom every fortnight to meet parents. They come to the school for an hour to talk about what activities they've done with their children and find out what the teacher's focus will be for the next week.
"It's great being able to put these things into practice," says Marilyn Tullock. "It's given the school a real buzz, and standards have risen in children's concentration and behaviour."