Is leading a faith school different from leading any other type of school? Many in the Catholic education sector believe that it is, and want to see national leadership programmes adapted to the needs of serving and aspiring church school heads.
Bernard Martin, head of English Martyrs' Catholic primary school in Wakefield, sums up this view when he says: "If there isn't something distinctive about us as Catholic schools, then we've got no right to exist - and it isn't just about teaching religious education, it's about a living experience. And if we are distinctive, then there are elements of training for leadership and management that must also be distinctive."
Three years ago Mr Martin took part in the first three-week "sabbatical experience" for heads of Catholic schools in the north-eastern dioceses of England. He says that after 13 years, he felt the need to step back and reflect on the job he was doing.
The sabbatical left him with a clearer understanding of how he could serve both "God and Mammon". In other words, how to make sure his school met its statutory obligations as well as the priorities of the church.
Made up of a residential element with presentations covering such topics as emotional literacy, visits to beacon schools and to Ripon Cathedral and Fountains Abbey, the sabbatical also gave heads time to work on tasks relating to the development of their own schools. In Mr Martin's case, this meant drawing up a spiritual policy, which his school now uses.
"It's about how we can recognise that God is in all things, whether we are talking about science or geography or life in the playground or the school play," he explains.
The sabbatical that Mr Martin went on, now an annual event, is one of several leadership development programmes offered by Catholic education authorities around the country. The dioceses of Brentwood, East Anglia, Northampton and Westminster, for instance, have been joining forces to run three-day residential courses for aspiring heads and deputy heads for the past 10 years.
More recently, a programme was launched in the West Midlands to encourage teachers in Catholic primary schools to think about leadership and sign up for the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH). Delivered by the Diocesan Schools Commission in partnership with the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) and its affiliated NPQH centre in Coventry, the year-long pilot combines face-to-face meetings with online learning.
If successful, a similar programme will be developed for secondary-school staff.
Mike Doyle, deputy head of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic primary in Birmingham, has found that the faith dimension of the new programme complements the NPQH, which he is taking at the same time.
"It's given me a head start because the format of the two programmes is similar," he says.
The NCSL's involvement in the new programme is the latest sign that it is trying to address the needs of faith schools, which make up around a third of all maintained schools and have the Government's blessing to expand still further.
Last year the college brought together heads of Catholic, Anglican, Jewish and other faith schools in a "leading-edge" seminar. Speakers included Pat McDermott, head of St Joseph's Catholic college in Bradford, who argued that the distinctiveness of faith schools does not necessarily make them exclusive.
He described how his own school works with a neighbouring Muslim girls'
school in ways ranging from pupils running a local cafe together to staff taking each others' assemblies and RE lessons.
The seminar also highlighted concerns about where the next generation of faith school leaders would come from. Catholic schools especially have for years been gripped by a headteacher recruitment crisis that shows no signs of letting up. According to Education Data Surveys, 58 per cent of head posts in Catholic schools were re-advertised at least once in the 20034 school year. This compares to a re-advertisement rate of around 37 per cent for all schools.
With the church insisting that the heads of its schools should be practising Catholics, the Catholic Education Service (CES) is trying to bring members of the faith currently working in other sectors back into the fold. But more needs to be done, says CES chief executive Oona Stannard.
"While there are, of course, generic skills to leadership in any kind of school, there are also additional responsibilities and a different lens through which the leadership of a church or faith-based school has to be viewed."
On a practical level, these extra responsibilities involve the governance and funding of voluntary-aided schools, which are owned by Catholic or Anglican dioceses or other religious authorities but receive state funding for running costs.
"The other difference is that if you are leading a faith-based school, you have a clear mandate to ensure that its ethos is distinctive and permeates all the school's activities and policies," says Ms Stannard.
She argues that the national college needs to make adequate, specific provision, including a distinctive NPQH module for those hoping to lead faith schools.
Commenting on the NCSL's response to these demands, Ms Stannard adds:
"There's slow but steady progress and a willingness to engage in dialogue."
An NCSL survey of Catholic and Anglican dioceses last year identified a need for a more strategic approach to leadership development in faith schools. Respondents said this should include early leadership development and succession planning for headship.
They also wanted development programmes that would help both middle-level leaders and heads gain a better understanding of the distinctive features of faith-based schools.
In response to these findings, the college has made some changes to NPQH study units and is developing a stand-alone online activity for participants from faith schools. A web community is already available for them, and a working party is being set up to review what this facility should provide.
But anyone hoping for a new version of the NPQH aimed at future faith school leaders is likely to be disappointed. Robin Attfield, assistant director for leadership programmes at the college, points out that the course is designed for aspiring heads of every type of school and builds on national, generic standards.
"But we do recognise that context is important, so we are looking now at the personalised learning agenda," he says.
NPQH candidates are already required to carry out a school improvement project in their own schools, while context matters in many of the learning materials. But the danger of going much further down this route is that small rural primaries, inner-city schools and others could all claim they should have their own NPQH. The result would be as many different versions of the qualification as there are types of school.
There are also concerns that tailoring a programme too narrowly to the faith-school sector could put a brake on job mobility.
Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, says: "It is logical that the faith schools would wish to include a module tailored to the ethos of the school.
"However, so that those seeking leadership posts are able to maximise their career opportunities in the future, this should be an optional module."