Now is an excellent time for deputy heads to get ready to run the show. Martin Whittaker reports
Anne-Marie Hutton had never had any great ambitions to be a headteacher, but a rare chance came right out of the blue last year.
She had been a deputy head for five years at the voluntary-controlled St Nicholas C of E infants school, in the Medway town of Strood, when the head suddenly decided to move on.
The school is one of the most successful in the country. And with the head's departure, Mrs Hutton faced a career watershed.
"Headship was never something I had particularly aimed towards," she says.
"But when these situations arise, you have all kinds of things to think about.
"I had been the previous head's first appointment, so between the two of us we have built the school into what we wanted it to be.
"One of my major decisions was when I thought, 'Hang on a minute - I don't want someone else to come in and take over. I want to be the one to take it forward.'" There was only one problem: she had not taken the National Professional Qualification for Headship. In April 2004, it became mandatory for new heads either to have completed it or to have secured a place on the course.
Luckily, the National College for School Leadership responded swiftly to her application and confirmed a place on the course in time for her headship interview.
Now, the college is urging deputies to be prepared for such unexpected opportunities - partly because that contingency of an urgent response to applications will soon be gone. Speedy processing of applications was introduced a year ago when the NPQH became mandatory. But the national college will phase it out after the current intake.
It seems a curious decision, but a spokeswoman for the college said it felt the service was no longer needed.
She added: "We want people to feel that if headship is something they have even a glimmer about, then they should pursue NPQH and bear in mind that by April 1, 2009, you will have to have the NPQH before you apply for headship. We are offering it for this intake, and we want people to understand that fast-track is available. But it won't always be there."
From a sample of those who have gained the qualification, 40 per cent have gone on to headship within two years. A further 4 per cent are acting heads, and 10 per cent of those who graduate decide not to go on to headship. Most of the rest are seeking headships.
The usual period between application and acceptance on the programme is about six weeks, while the fast-response process allows an applicant to secure a place on the NPQH programme in time to apply for a headship post.
But this can only be done in exceptional circumstances and with the approval of the appointing education authority adviser or chair of governors. The college also stresses that evidence of a headship interview does not guarantee a place on the NPQH.
Applicants will hear whether or not they have been accepted in time for their headship interview, and an interim letter will confirm a place on the NPQH if the candidate is eligible.
The college says that Mrs Hutton's case and others like it highlight the need to be ready for the unexpected. Mrs Hutton says she is glad she decided to go for her headship, although she finds the NPQH hard work.
"Unfortunately, in my cohort I'm the only head - everybody else is a deputy. It would be nice to have somebody in the same situation as me to share with. But I have very good friends who have gone through NPQH, who are heads and have been for a number of years, so I have a good network of support."
Philomena Tarkowski is also a former deputy for whom a shot at headship came suddenly. She had been deputy head and special needs co-ordinator of Sts Peter and Paul RC primary, Bolton, for six years when the top job became vacant last year.
"Headship wasn't in my plan at the time," she says. "I was happy as a deputy. I didn't apply for the post, but nobody was appointed.
"We spent the summer term looking at how we'd manage with me as acting head. We had a great leadership team and worked very hard. In September, we felt we really had our vision of where we wanted to go. I had started looking at NCSL modules, and I thought, 'I can do this.'" She applied for the job in October, but hadn't done NPQH. Even so, she managed to get her application fast-tracked and is now in post as head.
With headship recruitment difficult, the management team at the school is now making up for lost time with leadership training. One of the deputies is also taking the NPQH, and another member of staff is considering a Leading from the Middle programme.
Robin Attfield, the national college's assistant director of the NPQH, wants more deputy heads to take the qualification.
"We've had a lot of people coming through the fast-track application process who are deputies, who only believed they could be heads when the role became available at their schools," he says.
"They were often appointed as acting head, then realised that they did have the skills and capacity and could do the job as well as other contenders."
It is at that point, he says, that deputies realise that they want to do the job and that they need to apply for NPQH. He adds: "We would encourage deputies to do NPQH so that they are prepared.
"Sometimes people have only seen one model of headship - and if it's not a model that fits them, they believe they can't be a headteacher. NPQH widens their view and gives them greater exposure to other models of headship. It gives them a chance to work with a range of leaders and develop their vision of what sort of head they want to be."