The qualification for headteachers in England - the NPQH - becomes compulsory next April and time is running out for those who want to complete the programme before the deadline.
Anyone signing up now for the National Professional Qualification for Headship can theoretically still qualify in time, by taking the "fast track" route (see box). But governing bodies will be allowed to appoint "unqualified" heads, as long as they have registered for the qualification.
At present, nearly 7,000 people are studying for the NPQH, which is administered by the National College for School Leadership. More than 8,000 have gained the qualification since it was introduced in 1997.
From this summer, teachers who gain the NPQH will receive extra recognition for their achievement in the form of accreditation towards a masters degree. Under a new agreement with nine universities, the NPQH will be worth a third of a masters degree in school leadership, management, or school effectiveness.
The universities concerned are Bath, Hull, Leicester, London, Manchester, Nottingham, Reading, Warwick and the Open University.
Professor Clive Dimmock of Leicester University said: "We don't want NPQH to be seen as a one-off qualification, but as a natural step towards masters and even doctorates. It's about lifelong learning."
Ron Glatter, the OU's professor of education, also welcomed the deal. "I think this is the only professional qualification accepted across the board in England in this way," he said.
This kind of accreditation of prior learning was suggested when the heads'
qualification was first launched by the Teacher Training Agency but it failed to attract official support.
"The TTA always shied away from any link," said Professor Glatter. "But the national college seems to have made a clear commitment to work in partnership with higher education."
When the heads' qualification was first mooted there were fears that the market for higher education qualifications would shrink as funds and candidates drifted into the professional programmes. That does not appear to have happened.
"Masters and doctoral candidates aren't just from the school sector," said Professor Glatter. "But we hope to see more masters applications as a result of this link."
More universities are expected to sign up to the agreement with the national college later this year. And at least one university is considering whether to offer an education leadership masters that dovetails with the NPQH.
ROUTES TO THE TOP
Applications for the next NPQH round must be submitted by June 10, 2003.
There are three routes through NPQH, which can take between six months and two years to complete.
Route 1: Access - for teachers with relatively little management experience. This leads on to Route 2: Development - which is the core programme.
Route 3: Fast Track - is available to people who are deemed "very close to headship". Teachers who already hold a masters degree and have leadership experience will also be able to opt for this route.
Funding for NPQH is available through the National College for School Leadership for most applicants. The NPQH is delivered across England by 10 regional providers. Wales and Northern Ireland have their own equivalent qualifications.
In Scotland, the equivalent qualification is a postgraduate award in its own right. The Scottish Qualification for Headship is controlled by the Scottish General Teaching Council and was designed in conjunction with Scotland's universities. It has always counted towards an education masters degree.
Further information about the programme, application details and briefing sessions are available from the Headship Information Line 0845 716 5136 or by visiting www.ncsl.org.uknpqh