News that the Teacher Training Agency (TTA) had lost responsibility for headteacher training came just as the beleaguered quango finally seemed to be getting things right in this area.
A government review of the agency reported "unqualified" praise for the new Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers (LPSH) which was developed in response to demand from headteachers themselves. It is a four-day residential course based on a diagnosis of each participant's leadership style and its impact on his or her school.
"That's very powerful stuff and it has had an immediate appeal for heads, who often say it's the first time they've had any development that really focuses on them in that meaningful way," says Pat Collarbone, director of the London Leadership Centre at the Institute of Education, and one of the Department for Education and Employment's new team of advisers on teachers' issues.
Take-up of the serving heads qualification has been brisk, with 1,200 going through the programme in the first four months; recruitment for this year's course is expected to reach 3,500.
One reason for the success is that the agency, working with management consultants from the Hay-McBer group, completed development work before launching the course last November.
In contrast, the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) has been developed on the hoof. Since it started in September 1997, this qualification has been the object of constant tinkering, which was one reason why it received general criticism in the government review of the agency. It provides training at 22 centres nationwide for those with headship potential - they can do an accelerated programme over one term or a three-year course. The problem is that the people who it is aimed at - deputy heads in the main - are under too much pressure to undertake such study.
The Government plans to make the qualification mandatory for all new heads by 2002, but it understandably got off to a slower start then the course for serving heads. By the middle of May last year, around 400 aspiring heads had gained the qualification, and a further 5,700 had signed up for it, but the figure for those actively following the programme could be much lower.
Further changes to the qualification now being planned are clearly intended to make it more attractive to would-be heads. A new phase of development work on the NPQH will be led by Pat Collarbone, who says that while it is important to build on the qualification's strengths, fundamental questions need to be asked, especially about the amount of bureaucracy surrounding the NPQH.
"The qualification has been changed on a number of occasions and we always seem to produce a lot of paperwork to go with it," she says. "We have to look at that and think how we can make the NPQH more accessible for all, while meeting their individual needs."
One of the issues Ms Collarbone and her team will be considering is whether an information and communications technology component needs to be built into the qualification. They will also be looking at how candidates' schools and headteachers can make a greater contribution to the programme.
But while there is clearly scope for improvement, there are signs that even in its present form the qualification has begun to take off. In the first three weeks of the latest recruitment drive, the TTA received more than 7,000 requests for information and application packs, 2,000 more than the number received at the same point in earlier recruitment cycles.
Not all these enquiries will turn into applications, of course, but Harry Tomlinson, professor at Leeds Metropolitan University, says the national figure for enquiries confirms the growing interest in the qualification that he has detected in the regions. "As a centre manager I am now planning for the possibility that I could be delivering 50 or even 100 per cent more training in October than I had thought I would be," he says.
Arguing that the introduction of the accelerated route and the development of more sharply focused assessment tasks have increased the appeal of the qualification, he adds: "I think the message is getting through that what the TTA has done with the NPQH is recognise the importance of providing a variety of routes that meet the needs of large numbers of variably experienced and skilled people."
The most attractive improvement for candidates is the choice between the standard three-year route and the accelerated route for candidates who can show they have already met most of the national standards for headteachers without going through a full training programme. There is also a "bridging" accelerated route for candidates who started on the programme before the fully accelerated route was available.
These different pathways may meet the needs of deputy heads at different stages of their careers, but they have also created a complicated model, which potential candidates may find off-putting.
The National Association for Head Teachers, which has decided not to renew its contract to deliver the NPQH by open learning when its present contract runs out next month, argues that the qualification needs to be simplified so that it is more readily understood by aspiring heads. Welcoming the announcement of further development work, the association said: "We believe that it will be only through imaginative thinking and fundamental change that a new qualification will become fit for its purpose."
Little has been heard about Headlamp, the programme for newly appointed headteachers which started in 1995. The TTA estimates 85-90 per cent of all new heads have been through it in the past three and a half years.
Headlamp will form the third strand in the national framework for headteacher training proposed in last December's Green Paper, Teachers meeting the challange for change. Like the NPQH, it is expected to be the subject of a radical rethink. But an announcement on the future of this induction programme is unlikely until the mystery begins to clear surrounding the remit of the National College for School Leadership, a prospectus for which was announced by the Government last week. Expect action once a director is appointed in November.
DIFFERENT DEALS FOR A HEAD AND HIS DEPUTY
As head of a large secondary school Terry Creissen does not often get the chance to sit back and think about how he is doing - which is why he decided to go on the Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers. "I've done an MBA and an MA in education management, but I wanted to give some time to my own professional development and reflect on my leadership," says Mr Creissen, who has been principal of Colne Community School in Essex for five years.
Before the programme began, a cross-section of staff at the school contributed to an analysis of his leadership style. Feedback on this analysis provided during a four-day residential workshop proved something of an eye-opener for Mr Creissen, who discovered, for example, that his influence on school improvement was greater than he had thought. Equally useful were the opportunities to compare his own performance with national data on highly successful heads, and to work with 13 other heads from a wide range of schools.
Mr Creissen also speaks highly of post-workshop meetings with Peter Irons, a trader on the money markets who acts as his "business partner" on the programme. "Having a sounding board, someone who is not directly involved in the school, is an important factor," he says, adding: "I'm not learning how to be a better head, but I am learning how to be a better thinker about my leadership."
Mr Creissen is critical of some aspects of the programme. In particular, he thinks that at least one of the tutors leading the workshop he attended should have been a practising headteacher.
But he contrasts his largely positive experience of the programme with the struggle his deputy head, Candy Garbett, has had with the far more bureaucratic National Professional Qualification for Headteachers. Ms Garbett had already embarked on the qualification when the accelerated route was introduced last year. Since her original assessment had shown that she needed little training to meet the national standards for headteachers, she was able to switch on to the "bridging" accelerated route. But unlike candidates on the fully accelerated route, she has had to jump through most of the same hoops as people on the standard route, though in a shorter period of time.
But Ms Garbett's biggest bugbear is the amount of written evidence that she has had to collect to prove her competence in the 90-odd areas covered by the NPQH. "I haven't had a number of years to accumulate all this paper," she says. "I've been teaching for 20 years and it's not the way I'm used to working.
"I also feel quite strongly about having to keep going to other people for witness statements. It is hard to ask someone who is in a very stressful job to do that one extra thing, and I think that's an element of the programme that has not been thought through very carefully."