The Scottish Qualification for Headship (SQH) has attracted some criticism since its launch in June 1998, but now that the first group of candidates has qualified through the two-year standard route, and two groups have completed the one-year accelerated route, a more positive picture is beginning to emerge.
Successful candidates, although describing the course as rigorous and demanding, also say they found it a rewarding experience.
"It would be a pity," says Jennifer Reeves, national officer at the SQH development unit, "if problems with logistics led people to criticise the programme.
"I've never known a course where such a high proportion of participants felt it was improving their own practice. And a recent evaluation by the Scottish Council for Research in Education established a range of benefits - two-thirds of headteachers, for example, said they'd seen an improvement in their schools after a member of staff did the course."
The SQH consists of a combination of theory and practice, with assessment by university tutors based on portfolios in which candidates describe and analyse two whole-school projects, as well as comparing one aspect of management practice in schools and industry.
The accelerated one-year route is for candidates who have already gained considerable school management experience. "So a lot of the work is gathering evidence," explains Lynn Smith, depute head at Hill's Trust Primary, Glasgow, "whereas on the two-year route you do the projects while you're on the course.
"I found it all very useful because you're usually too immersed in the job to take that step backward and analyse the different aspects of managing people, policies, resources, learning and teaching.
"Certainly it was hard work, particularly for the six weeks or so before an assignment was due. And in the early days there were a few teething problems - like getting feedback from essays - but my main complaint would be the workload expected over and above a full-time job. Maybe the course could be better organised as a secondment.
"I wanted the qualification in recognition of the work I've done in my eight years as a depute head, and in case it becomes compulsory in the future. I don't have any plans to move, but I feel the SQH has given me the option and increased my confidence if I did decide to go for a headship."
One of the criticisms levelled at the course earlier this year by the Headteachers' Association of Scotland (HAS) was that passfail criteria were not adequately explained to candidates.
"I think maybe that was true at the beginning," says Sandra Bennie, assistant head at Cardonald Primary in Glasgow, and one of the group of 16 who have just successfully completed the course by the two-year standard route.
"Initially it seemed a bit vague, but that was partly because Unit 1 is all about self-evaluation. Later we received detailed criteria sheets for every assignment. The projects I was assessed on were part of our school development plan, so you might think there wouldn't be much additional work. But you were expected to be much more reflective and think more strategically than you might otherwise have done.
"You also had to elate what you were doing to educational theory and write about what you might do in different circumstances. All of which was very valuable.
"It did mean a lot of extra work though, which wasn't always easy. I have five-year-old twins and they still needed looking after and bedtime stories, even if their mum was on a course. Sometimes I wouldn't start the coursework until 10pm, and I wouldn't like to tell you what time I got to bed.
"I had a lot of support from my family, the staff at Cardonald Primary and Glasgow education authority - which organised meetings, brought in speakers and purchased books - and I think it might be a lot more difficult for candidates who didn't get that level of support."
One aspect of the course that might be improved, suggests Melvyn Lynch, assistant head at Dalziel High School, Motherwell, who has just qualified by the standard route, is the balance between theory and practice.
"I feel it's strong on theory but needs more input and maybe co-operation from schools and authorities on the practical side. I would have found more shadowing of specialist headteacher duties, like finance and management of resources, very useful.
"The advice I'd give to anyone beginning the course is to work closely with your main supporter, usually the head, and with the local authority, which should have an SQH co-ordinator. Don't be afraid to ask for the guidance and resources you feel you need."
Concerns over SQH remain, says HAS's education convener Alex Easton, particularly if the qualification were ever to become mandatory. "We canvassed our members, getting replies from more than half the authorities in Scotland, and found a wide variation in the chances of getting on the course and the kind of support you might expect if you did.
"Workload remains an issue - we heard from one of our members just last week who had to withdraw because he found it too heavy. At HAS we're very much in favour of staff development for senior management, but it's a matter of balancing the pain and gain.
"We should like to co-operate with the Executive on the operation and continued development of the SQH, review and evaluation of the programme, and the preparation of guidelines for best practice to be used by all the education authorities."
Enrolments: 54 candidates (30 standard, 24 accelerated) Successful completion: 16 candidates gained the SQH through the accelerated route; 16 completed through the standard route.
Withdrawals: relatively high, largely because people knew little of what to expect.
Enrolments: 199 (142 standard, 57 accelerated) Successful completion: Of the 57 on the accelerated route 29 gained the SQH, 23 await final assessment, 5 failed. Those on the standard route not yet completed.
Withdrawals: Of the 199, 5 withdrew from the accelerated route, 24 from the standard route.
Enrolments: 270 candidates
83 per cent who began earlier on the standard route are still doing it.
Successful completionwithdrawals: too early to say
A few candidates have transferred from the standard to accelerated routes. Numbers from primary and secondary sectors are roughly equal for the accelerated route, but there is a preponderance of primary teachers on the standard route.
SQH website: www.sqh.co.uk