Andy Moore-Stow was three years into his deputy headship at Pheasey Park Farm primary school in Great Barr, Birmingham, and had already signed up for an MA in primary education at the University of Central England when the chance to take part in the trials for the new headteachers' qualification turned up.
The National Professional Qualification for Headship seemed the ideal way of gaining theoretical knowledge which - unlike the MA which was mainly based at the university - was directly related to his experience.
"As a teacher you spend most of your life in the classroom," he says. "But when I got into senior management I realised there was a lot to learn about running a school. The MA was very interesting but didn't involve much practical advice and training. The NPQH isn't pie-in-the-sky. It's stuff you can use."
Andy dropped the MA and is now going on to complete the NPQH, becoming one of the first to gain the new qualification which the Government has said will be required by anyone who wants to be a headteacher within five years. About 3,000 aspiring heads have signed up for the first year which starts this term.
Fellow candidate, Winsome Thomas, a teacher adviser with Birmingham education authority, was equally impressed by the practical nature of the NPQH trials. "I realised that I knew nothing about the legal side of running a school, or financial management," she says. "I had no idea that you can't take money for school trips out of petty cash, because it's illegal."
Many trial candidates are surprised that nothing like the NPQH has existed until now. Increasing competition brought on by league tables and budgets linked to pupil numbers means heads are being seen increasingly as managers whose performance can make or break their school. The NPQH is designed to speed up this professionalisation of school management.
The finishing touches are still being put to the NPQH - it has been produced in less than a year - but its outline is clear: it will be based on the candidate's needs; it will be school-based; it will involve research materials and reports by such bodies as the Department for Education and Employment's school effectiveness unit and the Office for Standards in Education; and, beyond a basic curriculum, it will be fairly flexible.
Towards the end of the course, candidates will have to demonstrate their skills and show that they meet all the requirements. The assessments, carried out by separate regional organisations, will be largely practical, involving presentations and role-playing.
George Gyte, who has led development of the NPQH at the Teacher Training Agency, stresses that: "We didn't want an academic qualification. We eschewed a set philosophy, and we're not into theory. We're trying to encourage people who have a vision of improvement for their school and a good strategy for achieving it."
Much of the thinking behind the training comes from industry and commerce. Anne Evans, chief executive of Head Teachers and Industry, and manager of the West Midlands training centre for the NPQH, says: "There has been a feeling in the past in education that we don't want to involve people from outside because they don't understand what we do.
"But the NPQH is about creating the best leaders for our schools, and people are realising that organisations are very similar in the way they operate. Businesses look at what they want to achieve and plan accordingly. Schools have a lot to learn from that."
Signs so far for the NPQH's success are encouraging but there are concerns. A letter recently published in The TES (August 1) complained that three teachers had been told they were eligible for the course but were "unfunded", raising the fear that they, or their schools, would have to raise thousands of pounds. The TTA has trained local authority officials in how to select candidates, but involving local authorities in selection and funding appears to have created fertile ground for disagreement.
Fears are being privately expressed that although most local education authorities will support the scheme, some may drag their feet or claim they do not have enough money.
Some also question whether NPQH standards will remain constant from one region to another - a particular problem when so much is being left to local trainers to decide in the light of local circumstances and the needs of their students.
And there are potential pitfalls in the assessment procedures. The TTA insists they will be rigorous, and there will be second chances and appeals mechanisms, although it also insists that, as a professional qualification, there will be failures.
But candidates will inevitably be at the mercy of individual judgment, however hard the TTA tries to make the assessment objective. With so much at stake - failing the course could be a devastating blow to a teacher's career - this could turn out to be a minefield.
There is also a question mark over whether the emphasis on practice is appropriate. Many trial candidates have said they favour the practical approach and, for most, it will seem more useful than higher degrees being offered by many institutes.
But at least one, Peter Lewis, head of the Bulmershe comprehensive school in Reading, Berkshire, who is finishing an MBA with Keele University and who also took part in the NPQH trials, suspects the new qualification has gone too far towards practice at the expense of useful theory.
"There was a lot of discussion and giving presentations to your fellow candidates," he recalls of the NPQH trials. "The reading lists were there if you were interested, but the assignments didn't require the same depth of theoretical background as the MBA."
CANDIDATES DEVELOP THEIR OWN TRAINING PLAN
Candidates begin their own training plannpqh by attending one of 11 regional assessment centres where they are given tests to determine the areas in which they need training to meet the "national stan-dards", set out in an eight-page document. From this, they draw up their own development plan, which will form the basis of their training over the next two to three years.
All successful candidates then sign up to one of the regional centres, each run by a franchised training provider, or they can choose the "supported open learning" option being offered by the Open University and the National Association of Head Teachers.
They then have to complete a compulsory core module on strategic management and accountability, based on 60 hours' tuition and "contact" time and a further 120 hours of projects, reading and preparation. Candi-dates will be given a series of assignments - carrying out an analysis of their school, for example - each of which will be assessed. The compulsory module is likely to occupy the first year.
The curriculum for the compulsory module, split into four units, suggests that how it is taught will be largely left to the local providers to decide. Activities listed for the first unit, "developing a strategic educational vision committed to raising achievement", for example, include "creating a shared perception among different groups in a school". What this means, and how it is to be taught, appears unspecified.
Three further mod-ules cover "teaching and learning", "leading and managing staff" and "efficient and effective deployment of staff and resources". How many of these the candidates complete will depend on their needs.
There will be some formal tuition, usually involving day-long or weekend sessions, but the emphasis will be tailored to the individuals and groups taking part.
Further details from Simon Grimwood at the Teacher Training Agency, Portland House, Stag Place, London SW1E 5TT.