Barry Spruce knew it was time to leave the Foreign Office when his children were evacuated from his posting in Pakistan in May 2002 because of bomb threats and political tensions. "Traumatic" is how he describes the experience now. Back in England, he remembered how he had considered teaching while fresh from university. Last summer he applied for the fast track programme . Asked during his first teaching practice at Hartsdown technology school in Margate, Kent, what motivates him, he says: "I still feel my ambition is to be a good teacher. I don't set myself any goals."
What? No burning desire to stab colleagues in the back and clamber over their bleeding bodies to an early headship? No swaggering in on the first day to tell the old has-beens in the staffroom that they're doing it wrong? What kind of a fast-track leadership programme is this?
It is five years since David Blunkett announced plans to recruit high-flyers to become the school leaders of tomorrow. But halfway through the programme's third year in operation - the first students began in September 2001 - it seems to be undergoing subtle changes. It's no longer simply about headship, but about pedagogical leadership.
"If this had been sold as a become-a-head programme, I don't think I'd have done it because I don't think that's the way forward," he says. "It's about accumulating a lot of different experiences and utilising them in different ways. It certainly does me no harm as an NQT."
Ed Mayell, one of the first cohort and now in his second year of teaching at Haybridge high school, Stourbridge in the West Midlands, agrees. "People were scared they'd get pushed into management too soon and taken out of the classroom." Instead, he says, he was left to get on with mastering teaching, and is only now beginning to think about running his own department - and then probably not until September next year.
"I thought there would be more pressure from the DfES (Department for Education), but that hasn't been the case. " Fast track was a controversial programme from its announcement in November 1998. Its aim was to attract "a greater share of the most talented". It was predicted that 1,000 high-flyers would be found every year; such numbers proved to be a pipedream.
People asked how you could spot a potential school leader before they'd even set foot in a classroom. Today, the Government calls it a "leadership" not a recruitment policy, offering "better training than ever before".
So today becoming an advanced skills teacher is considered as valid an outcome as becoming a head. And after a slow start, the programme seems to be taking off. Numbers more than doubled this year, with 300 graduates joining initial teacher training programmes. Applications for next year are up a further 7 per cent. There are today 546 fast track teachers and trainees, one in 10 of them recruited as serving teachers.
But they don't come cheap. Whitehall has so far spent almost pound;35 million on the programme. Even allowing generously for the cost of recruiting next year's cohort, that still works out at a good pound;50,000 each. Put another way, around pound;30,000 per person per year. Newcomers to teaching get pound;5,000 on top of the pound;6,000 that all other trainees receive. Once in a job, they get two recruitment points, worth around pound;2,000 a year.
Then there's the free laptop, printer and digital camera, along with top-of-the-range software and, potentially, grants for any other equipment they may need.
Phil Willis, education spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, says: "The cost is absolutely enormous. I would scrap it and use the money much more effectively by supporting training programmes to recruit and retain people in schools that desperately need their skills."
"Change is expensive," says Jake Mansell, a fast-track maths teacher at John Kelly girls' technology college in Brent, north-west London. "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you always got. If the Government is serious about making sure schools are effectively led, it's going to cost money."
Most fast-trackers will carry out a research project during their PGCE year. Even in their first year of teaching, they will be expected to take on a whole-school role, although experiences vary. And from day one they must sacrifice part of their free time and holidays to attend training.
Envy among colleagues usually evaporates at that point. But they all speak enthusiastically about the training.
Mr Mansell, who in a former life ran a dance record label, says: "Giving up a few Saturdays and part of your holidays would be a bind if they weren't so energising. It's good to network with like-minded people outside the school. It doesn't seem like an extra chore."
Criticisms persist. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says the scheme is simply superfluous. "We already have the capacity to promote really good young teachers quickly," he says. "Heads have always done it and now, with greater flexibility on salaries, there's even more opportunity."
Still, those who have hired such staff are enthusiastic. Malcolm Trobe, head of Malmesbury school in Wiltshire, was so impressed by his fast-track NQT and the quality of training on offer, he encouraged serving staff to apply. But even he worries at the emphasis on leadership at the expense of basic classroom practice.
"One of the key things about managing at any level is you have to feel extremely confident about your own teaching, and that takes experience," he says. "You've got to be able to take that Year 9 class at the drop of a hat."
There are other caveats. More than half may have had three years in other careers, but there's little sign the scheme is attracting people who would otherwise not have considered teaching.
More seriously, the Green Paper envisaged fast-trackers deployed in "schools - those in difficulties for example - which were in urgent need of excellent staff". The general perception is that few are there yet, and with their high employability, graduates will have their pick of cushy posts.
For more details on fast track, go to: www.fasttrackteaching.gov.uk
* MONEY: pound;5,000 tax-free bursary (trainees only): pound;3,000 at start of teacher training year; pound;2,000 on starting first teaching post; higher pay scale (worth pound;1,400 per year); two recruitment and retention points after first year teaching (worth pound;2,000 annually)
* goodies: Laptop, software and colour printer; digital camera; grants for extra equipment or training
* Support: In-school mentor, area co-ordinator, dedicated website; personal career plan and extra training; help applying for jobs
* 22 Ucas A-level points
* 2.1 degree (or a 2.2 plus MA, PhD or similar) related to fast track subject (secondary) or in national curriculum subject (primary)