More than 200 deputy headteachers and senior managers are this term on a dry run for the new National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) before it becomes more widely available in September.
Ten centres in England and one in Wales are providing training, while another centre in each region assesses candidates at the start and end of the process, which can take up to three years. In most regions, separate institutions won contracts for the training and the assessment.
The East Midlands training and development centre is run by a consortium comprising De Montfort University, Bedfordshire County Council and the two conferences representing heads in independent schools. It liaises closely with the East Midlands regional assessment centre but operates independently.
The new qualification consists of a compulsory module, on strategic leadership and accountability, and three optional modules: teaching and learning; development and deployment of people and resources; people and relationships.
Each centre is trying out the teaching and learning module, one of the other optional modules and the compulsory module, which covers areas such as target-setting and managing change. The trial group includes staff from both state and independent schools.
"The NPQH is open to anybody who can realistically hope to secure a headship during the next three years," said Rob Bollington, manager of the East Midlands training centre. "Although there has been training for aspiring heads in the past, some of it was rather patchy. People welcome this as something that is long overdue."
The candidates began training in March and continue until the end of this month. The trials will determine such factors as whether training should take place during school time and the best size for the groups.
All 12 candidates in the trials will be able to use the training they receive this term to work towards the full qualification. Assessment may take place at a regional centre anytime from the autumn onwards, although it is unlikely any awards will be made until 1998.
Mr Bollington believes some of the candidates can be expected to gain the qualification quite rapidly. A few may have Masters of Business Administration (MBAs) or may be working towards one at the same time as studying for the headship qualification.
The MBAs, however, are not linked to the national standards for heads drawn up by the Teacher Training Agency. "The NPQH is much more geared towards preparing the next generation of heads," Mr Bollington added.
Twenty candidates are taking part in trials in the South-west, where the assessment centre is run by a consortium made up of Spearflex Personnel Development, the IBM Business School and Oxford University.
The initial assessment of candidates includes a one-to-one evaluation, then each one is helped to develop an action plan, setting out what he or she needs to do to gain the NPQH.
"There were varying levels of potential," said centre manager Reg Stone. "Some will probably gain a qualification within 12 months, while others were relatively new deputies and clearly require far more training."
All the candidates found the opportunity to evaluate their own competence a valuable exercise. "The objective is to make them think about moving into headship and how they are performing in their current role," said Reg Stone. "On the whole, they were realistic about their capabilities and what they need to do."
Although only 26 candidates applied to take part in trials in the South-west, he expects the response next term to be far higher. As many as 150 people have already expressed an interest, but much will depend on the level of financial support available for local education authority heads through the Grants for Education Support and Training scheme, and for other candidates through the TTA.
Candidates who prefer distance learning may study for the headship qualification through a scheme run by the Open University and the National Association of Head Teachers. Twenty candidates from London and the South-east are on a trial course.
Esther Williams, the NAHT's senior assistant secretary for training and development, said aspiring heads might opt for open learning because of geographical remoteness or the flexibility it offers: "It may suit them better in terms of their working and personal life."