The Teacher Training Agency is preparing to deliver its proposals for the first national professional qualification for headteachers to the Government within six months.
The TTA, which has been charged with devising the qualification for aspiring heads, insists it will assure governors that newly-appointed school leaders are capable of doing the job.
Sir Michael Heron, chairman of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, has been keen for the new qualification to be an NVQ. The TTA has said it would be equivalent to an NVQ level 5.
John Hillier, chief executive of the NCVQ, said: "We would be delighted if it were an NVQ, but it is not our decision."
The qualification will provide a baseline for further professional development and the agency's proposals will draw on existing good practice and best management techniques in and outside education.
Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, has said little about the qualification, announced at last week's Conservative party conference, other than that it will be "rigorous".
But the TTA will be looking for leadership, management knowledge, understanding and skills which can be measured against a national standard. It maintains, too, that only those fitted for headship will gain the qualification.
All parties and the profession agree that aspiring headteachers need training and development. Mrs Shephard's announcement to the Tory party conference echoed words uttered less than four months earlier by Tony Blair, the Labour leader, in a lecture at London University Institute of Education.
Heads' associations have long called for professional training and the National Commission on Education reported major concerns - haphazard selection procedures, an ad hoc system of preparation and little commitment for management courses because of budget cuts which left little money for training.
How the Government funds this new qualification will be crucial with the huge education cuts this year. Ministers have already angered education authorities by taking the money for the Headteachers Learning and Management Programme (Headlamp) from council budgets.
Headlamp, which gives new heads - and their governors - a Pounds 2,500 voucher to spend on training with registered providers, is the forerunner of the new qualification.
Indeed the TTA believes the qualification will provide a baseline from which newly-appointed heads can develop leadership and management abilities through Headlamp.
Initial consultations with the profession begin this month. Proposals will be finalised by early January and pilots set up in the autumn.
The Secondary Heads Association hopes work being carried out at the National Education Assessment Centre at Oxford Brookes University will feature heavily in the shape of the new qualification.
The centre, a joint venture between SHA and the school of education at the university, has provided developmental courses for more than 350 heads since it was set up four years ago. It has several commercial sponsors including Marks and Spencer.
Mrs Shephard has already backed the centre's style of management development - while at the Department of Employment she supported it with a Pounds 65, 000 Government grant.
John Sutton, general secretary of SHA, said: "In a modern world it is indefensible that those placed in charge of a school shouldn't be properly trained to do the job."
At the National Education Assessment Centre, strengths and weaknesses are detected through a series of role-playing exercises.
Assessors observe, record and analyse candidates' every move - do they show leadership, judgement, sensitivity? What are their education values? How do they cope with stress? Do they have organisational skills? Can they motivate others?
Malcolm Hewitt, the centre's national director and a past-president of SHA, said: "I hope that the Government doesn't mean this new qualification to be a glorified correspondence course. That is almost meaningless. There needs to be some objective assessment based on observation of how people react with each other."
News of the training plan came as a survey by Oxford Brookes for the National Association of Head Teachers showed a dwindling number of applications for head and deputy posts. Forty-one schools which advertised for a head or deputy between January and March this year had fewer than 10 applications.
Almost two-thirds of all the schools advertising top jobs during the same period reported applications were down or the same as in previous years. Headships were also being re-advertised more frequently, indicating dissatisfaction among senior management.
The NAHT hopes the new scheme will take the fear out of the job for those willing to take it on. Jeff Holman, assistant secretary (education), said: "Hopefully this will give them better preparation for headship and a better idea of what they are coming into."
Meanwhile the London borough of Wandsworth is pressing ahead with its own plans for grooming headteachers. It intends to send talent scouts into schools to identify future heads and put them on a fast track. "Schools live or die on the quality of their headteachers," said Elizabeth Howlett, chair of education. "We have to find new ways of tapping talent in the classroom."
Contributions to the TTA, Portland House, Stag Place, London, SWIE 5TT by November 24.
COUNTDOWN TO NEW QUALIFICATION
Stage 1 Preparation of options (October 1995-January 1996) 1995 October-December: Teacher Training Agency holds initial consultations with the profession and others to help draw up a range of options. Early January 1996: Consultation proposals finalised.
Stage 2 Consultation (January-April 1996) January-March: Consultation on options using a range of means, including regional conferencesseminars, consultation papers and publicity. April: TTA plans for trials to Secretary of State Stage 3 Trials (May 1996-March 1997) May-July: Set up trials with volunteer aspiring heads, schools, providers and assessors. September: Trials start.
March 1997: TTA reports to Secretary of State on ways forward.
Stage 4 Implementation (April-September 1997) April-July: Arrangements, procedures and materials finalised and disseminated. September: Implementation