Although the same providers may be allowed to assess the training needs of prospective heads as well as offering personal development courses, the Teacher Training Agency insists the two must be kept at arm's length. "There would have to be 'Chinese wall' arrangements to ensure a fair operation," said Stephen Hillier, the TTA's head of resources.
The agency has invited bids from companies wishing to run assessment and training and development centres in 10 English regions and up to two regions in Wales. Candidates, most of whom are expected to be deputies, will visit a centre for a needs assessment before they enrol for further training.
Companies are also being invited to submit tenders for distance-learning programmes for candidates in remoter places. The NPQH, as it is to be known, was proposed at last year's Conservative Party Conference by Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard. It is designed to complement the two-year Headlamp programme, launched last autumn, which is aimed at newly-appointed heads.
The NPQH will cover five main areas: strategic direction and development of the school; learning and teaching in school; people and relationships; the development and deployment of human and material resources; and accountability for the efficiency and effectiveness of the school. Each is expected to form a distinct module, although no final decision will be taken until a management and development group, including the successful tenders, meets later this year.
Since the qualification was proposed by Mrs Shephard, it has been given a subtle name change. Instead of being a qualification for headteachers, it will be known as a qualification for headship. "We wanted to be clear it is for people hoping to go on and become heads," said Mr Hillier.
Although the module on strategic direction will be compulsory, the other areas may be optional depending upon a candidate's previous experience. The needs assessment will determine whether a deputy or other candidates have already undertaken tasks which can be included in their portfolio of evidence and which will help them to gain the NPQH. "A lot of people are already on the point of being ready for headship," he added. "To put everybody through training would be a waste of resources."
To gain the teaching and learning module a candidate might, for example, show that they had overseen the planning, implementation and review of a significant curriculum development or evaluated a colleague's teaching.
Standards for the qualification are designed to be applicable in all schools although training and assessment methods may vary between small primaries and large secondaries. The context in which a candidate gained their NPQH will be indicated to future employers.
According to the TTA, candidates should take no longer than three years to gain an NPQH and some may complete it in just one. Esther Williams, senior assistant secretary for training and development at the National Association of Head Teachers, said the timescale would depend upon the circumstances in a school.
She wants candidates who take unforeseen career breaks to be allowed to defer completion. "If somebody was due to complete it and became pregnant we wouldn't want them to be told that they were no longer eligible."
Mrs Williams, who was a member of the TTA advisory group which drew up the framework for the qualification, said the NPQH was breaking new ground for school managers. "We are not aware of any other country which has done this," she said. "The aim is to make it as practical as possible for people to show what they can do or have already done and that they clearly have the potential for headship."
Training and assessment will be trialled among a pilot group of prospective heads before full introduction of the new qualification in September next year. Distance-learning programmes may be run by one training provider or by a series of providers in competition with another.
Companies tendering to run one or more of the regional centres have been told that each centre should be capable of handling between 500 and 1,000 candidates a year. The final take-up, however, will almost certainly depend upon levels of government funding.
The TTA has said that the cost of needs assessment, training and development and supply cover while candidates are away from school should not exceed Pounds 2,500. Money may be provided by local authorities, training and enterprise councils or by candidates themselves, who will be expected to do much of the work in their own time.
Malcolm Hewitt, director of the Secondary Heads Association's national educational assessment centre, is concerned that the TTA has assumed that the assessment process, including the final awarding of the qualification, will cost no more than 20 per cent. "It is not viable for an assessment centre to do everything for just Pounds 500," he said.
Mr Hewitt stressed SHA was behind the concept of the NPQH and would be bidding to run assessment operations, but not to provide training, in areas where it already runs its own assessment centres. "If you make it a requirement that people get this qualification and all they see is three years' hard slog which they may have to fund themselves then they may decide that it is not worth it," he said.
Dorothy Shirvell, a partner at Southampton-based training firm Qudos, said the NPQH would build on generic management qualifications, such as National Vocational Qualifications, and was the forerunner of other specialist qualifications within education, including awards for experienced teachers. "It must be flexible enough to take account of prior learning but rigorous enough to ensure consistency of standards," she explained.
Both headteachers' associations insist Headlamp, which this year is being undertaken by 1,500 new heads, should continue alongside the NPQH but may need to be reviewed once the new qualification is bedded down.
Esther Williams suggested that, eventually, the NPQH may replace an MBA as the most popular management qualification among aspiring heads and become a shortlisting tool. "It may be necessary to revisit Headlamp to see what sort of training is required once people are coming into headship with a more complete range of proven skills," she said.