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Make heads believe in us

The National College for School Leadership is changing - and not just at the helm. Martin Whittaker reports

The latest initiative to come out of the National College for School Leadership is encouraging schools to look to the future.

FutureSight is a package designed to help school leaders consider how children will want to learn in the year 2020, and how schools will need to change to meet those needs.

It is perhaps an irony that the launch of FutureSight comes just as the college is busy considering its own future, and how it needs to adapt to the Government's increasingly demanding policy agenda on education.

A fundamental review of the NCSL, published this summer, was effusive in its praise for the college, using the word "remarkable" to describe its achievements in its first few years.

These include high satisfaction ratings for its programmes by headteachers and deputies, its improvement of existing leadership programmes such as the National Professional Qualification for Headship, and the fact that it has involved more than 40,000 school leaders each year.

But, getting into its stride, the review also identifies some major issues for the NCSL to address over the next three years, including achieving a "more productive" relationship with the Department for Education and Skills, strengthening its partnerships, doing more to reach the very best school leaders and changes to its funding regime.

In short, the NCSL of 2008 will need to be a much more streamlined, focused and accountable body than at present.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says feedback on the college's leadership programmes is very positive. But, he says, heads feel it has lacked strategic direction and that they don't have ownership of it. "There's not so much a feeling among heads that this is our college," he says, "but that the DfES too often puts it at its beck and call to deliver a range of tasks."

Heather Du Quesnay, the NCSL's chief executive, is not surprised by the review findings. She says the college has grown exceptionally quickly and that this stocktaking is part of the natural cycle for such an organisation starting from scratch. "At some point you do need to pause, take stock, judge what's working and what isn't, judge where your strengths and weaknesses may be and take action on the basis of that," she says.

When Tony Blair announced the college in 1998, headteachers approved.

Nicknamed education's Sandhurst by the media, it opened in November 2000 and moved into its newpound;28 million headquarters in Nottingham in 2002.

It has been a very ambitious project - it is the only national college in the world set up to develop leadership specifically in schools.

And it has involved considerable investment. In its first year its gross income from the DfES was pound;29.2m, and this year it is pound;111.3m.

Top of the list of key issues to be addressed is the college's relationship with its paymasters. The review report says this has so far consisted of bilateral agreements between parts of the DfES and parts of the NCSL, but with no overall coherence between policy and practice.

And while personal relationships have been good, conversations between the two have not always been focused enough, admits Heather Du Quesnay.

"The DfES has felt it hasn't got a tight enough grip on the way in which the college and the department interact with one another in order to produce changes to raise standards," she says, adding that work is already under way to remedy this.

In general, the NCSL will have to be clearer in identifying its objectives and targets, measuring its impact and becoming more accountable to the profession.

"This is something that the public, headteachers, and teachers have a right to expect - that we should be able to give a clear account of what we've done and what difference it's made, just as schools have to do," explains Ms Du Quesnay.

Another key area for change is funding. So far the college has earned its keep from a combination of DfES grants and income from those taking part in its professional development programmes. Schools make a 30 per cent contribution towards the cost of core leadership programmes, and 20 per cent towards the cost of the NPQH.

Heather Du Quesnay says the college is still awaiting clarification on how the Government's comprehensive spending review will affect it. However, given the current policy of devolving funding to schools, they could end up paying a bigger proportion of the cost of leadership programmes and receive more money for doing so.

One big challenge for the NCSL is to reach the non-believers. While the extreme views of former chief inspector Chris Woodhead are well documented - last year he dismissed the college as "a grotesque waste of public money" - the review says that heads of some very successful schools are also critical.

Its chief executive admits that the college has so far failed to reach some of the very best school leaders and all they have to offer.

"Some heads who have been very successful in developing their schools are sometimes the sort of people who are driven by motives that don't lead them into a collaborative, sharing atmosphere," she says.

"If you like, they're the mavericks. They're very entrepreneurial, bold and risk-taking. They are motivated by the success of their school and to some extent by their personal success. It doesn't come to them readily either to see themselves as learners or to want to contribute to the learning of others.

"We've really got to search our practice to see what more we can do to bring those people in, first because we've got something to offer them but also because they've got such a lot to give."

Internally, the college is also tightening up its day-to-day business, monitoring its use of information and communications technology, human resources, finance and procurement.

It may close one of its four sites in a bid to become more streamlined, but Heather Du Quesnay rules out redundancies. "I think with our natural turnover we can handle it quite comfortably."

She will not be in post to see how the college rises to these challenges.

She leaves her job in 2005 at the age of 57 and admits the review provided a watershed.

"I had to decide did I want this to be my last job, or was I going to take the opportunity to look around and see if there's anything different I can do to round off my career?

"I have led change programmes in other organisations and I think there is something to be said if you're going through a change process, for that change to be associated with a new face."

Whoever that turns out to be, the NCSL faces some challenging times, says David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

"Now it's affected by budgetary constraints and it's going to have to raise a lot more revenue from other sources rather than relying on government grants," he says.

"That will be a particular test for the college because once it gets into having to raise revenue itself, it will be in competition with a lot of other people who deliver very high-class management and leadership training and development programmes," says Mr Hart.

"That will be a big test and a big challenge for Heather Du Quesnay's successor."

For further information on FutureSight and the End-to-End Review of School Leadership Policy and Delivery see

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