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Mad for it

Never let it be said that I am afraid of a challenge. As deputy in a large primary school I face challenges, large and small, every day. So why did I hesitate when, during my annual appraisal interview, my head suggested that I apply to do the national professional qualification for headship (NPQH)?

I work all hours to balance the demands of busy school life. This is far from unusual, but the additional pressures I face as a young and recently appointed deputy add to the stresses. My colleagues expect me to be able to offer advice and support, my head expects a knowledgeable and competent deputy, parents expect excellent teaching, and 480 children expect a photographic memory for names, faces and birthdays.

My expectations of myself are higher. I want to be the best deputy head possible, and in time move on to headship.

No matter how well planned, my day never proceeds as expected, and the diversions hit me more often and from more sides than they ever did when I was a class teacher. But to solve problems and to enable and empower others is hugely satisfying. The only problem is that being a good deputy takes up time; I work a 55-hour week and supplement this with work at weekends and during the holidays.

So when the issue of NPQH was raised eight months after I was appointed in September 1998, I was rather unsure. I want to be well prepared for headship, so in principle the idea was appealing. But I began to have doubts. First, I was by no means sure that I was ready to take on headship training so soon into being a deputy. I wondered whether I needed a period of consolidation.

Second, I have a life away from school: I have a husband, a Victorian house in need of restoration and a garden in need of taming. I am thinking about having children of my own, and am under no illusions about what hard work they are. I had to ask myself seriously whether I was ready to take on the NPQH.

The local education authority's information-sharing sessions dispelled many of y concerns. It was made clear that the NPQH would build on my skills and qualities and that the initial assessment process is designed to ensure that you are focused on the areas that you, as an individual, need to develop. This individuality is what I needed - although being a deputy prepares you for some of the responsibilities of headship, it can never fully equip you with all the skills.

Many heads have said to me that they learned most of their skills "on the job". But I want to be better prepared than that, and it was slowly becoming clear that the NPQH was the way ahead.

Ultimately, though, I still worried about the effect it would have at home. I had to estimate how much time it would take, and that prompted further questions. Can I ask my husband to take on extra household tasks? Am I prepared to delay starting my family? Can I maintain my high standards with the inevitable extra workload? A new cleaning lady and an understanding husband can solve the first problem. The others are not so easy.

The NPQH is demanding, and rightly so. But I have weighed up the effects it will have on me, on my career and on my family: the best time for this is now. After all, the demands of my job will remain, I'm childless (for now), and I have plenty of energy and enthusiasm.

The decision has taken time, but I've made it. I've been accepted to start this month. I can't wait.

Jane Ratcliffe is deputy headof the Manor county primary school, Oxfordshire

* NPQ-what?

The NPQH started in September 1997 and will be mandatory for all new heads by 2002. It aims to develop the skills, knowledge and understanding of those aspiring to headship, and sets rigorous standards, from application through to completion.

It takes up to three years (although it can be completed in shorter periods: an accelerated route, sometimes over one term, is also an option).

The standard route starts with a needs assessment from which an individual programme is formulated.

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