As the headship qualification becomes compulsory for newcomers to the post, Jill Parkin asks how well it shows that someone has what it takes
No one seems to fail it. But the National Professional Qualification for Headship is considered so important that since yesterday, every person appointed to their first headship in England must have it - or be registered for the training.
School governors, who appoint heads, are beginning to work out what difference it makes, both to recruiting candidates and their quality. Right now, there are doubts about how some governing bodies will view the qualification - and fears that it will make it even harder for some schools to find leaders.
"Governors must bear in mind that the NPQH cannot be more than a basic requirement," says Jane Phillips, chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers.
"It cannot tell you whether this candidate is going to be a good head for your particular school. If, as it appears, there's no failure rate, you also have to question what it does tell you anyway.
"Certainly governors need to be aware of other ways of judging candidates, including presentations and the use of assessment centres."
A governor of a primary school in Watford, Hertfordshire, which has just appointed a new head with NPQH, said she considered it the least important indicator of a candidate's fitness for the post.
"We simply don't know what it tells us about a candidate. It would be great to have a qualification which said 'This person will make a good head', but I'm not sure the NPQH does say that. You can look through the national standards but it is hardly enlightening.
"We had just four applicants, of whom I think two had NPQH and two were working towards it. The fact that I can't be 100 per cent sure shows how little importance we placed on it. There are far better ways, such as using assessment centres as we did.
"A qualification should be tested before being made compulsory. We should study the performance of those with the NPQH, perhaps through the Office for Standards in Education, and see if they are 'good or better' as opposed to 'satisfactory and above'."
A major concern for Paul Mason, an executive member of the National Governors' Council from Derbyshire, is the level of training NPQH provides on the role of governors.
"Of course we're in favour of anything that increases the quality of headship. But we have been critical for some time of the fact that the issue of governors' responsibility was not included in the NPQH remit.
There's an obvious gap there and we're trying to change it. Ofsted has found that the best schools have high governor participation.
"Governors do need to be aware of this issue if they accept NPQH as evidence of someone's ability to be a head. It has something to contribute, but the danger is that lazy governing boards and lazy local education authorities may see possession of NPQH as meaning someone is well-qualified, but it doesn't necessarily demonstrate that you have the necessary skills."
As for that non-existent failure rate, it seems that hopeless cases drop out of NPQH rather than hang around to be failed. Nick Bannister, spokesman for the national college, would not be drawn on whether it failed - or didn't fail - people.
"NPQH is an exacting qualification, and rightly so," he says. "There are candidates at all stages of NPQH - entry level, school-based assessment, and final assessment - who don't meet the mark. In a recent school-based assessment (February 2004), 3.4 per cent of candidates didn't meet the criteria, while the figure for a final assessment in December 2003 was 2.97 per cent.
"Following school-based and final assessments, candidates may be re-assessed once, with the college paying for this retake for funded candidates. But a second retake has to be at their own personal cost.
"Candidates receive detailed feedback after each assessment and where candidates don't make the mark and are not getting close they usually choose not to put themselves through it again.
"Some candidates have failed to achieve NPQH in the allotted timescale, despite a second retake, but the assessment system is there to ensure that candidates can make a judgment on whether to continue or not."
Meanwhile, there are worries that the NPQH requirement will make recruiting a head even harder for some schools that already struggle to find suitable candidates. Small primaries, special schools and Catholic schools are the most vulnerable, according to John Howson, director of Educational Data Services. He also says there may be equal opportunities issues to consider, in respect of the ethnicity and gender of candidates with NPQH.
"Special schools already have enough trouble finding someone suitable with the right specialism. And there is a geographical issue for small primaries. Candidates don't usually want to move a long way for such a headship so the pool is already limited. Releasing deputies from small schools to do their NPQH training is also a problem," he says.
"There's a diocesan issue too, especially for Catholic schools, who already insist on a Catholic teaching certificate. We need to ask whether (making NPQH compulsory) is going to make it harder to get more women heads and more ethnic minority heads in secondary schools. In all these areas, making the NPQH compulsory is likely to inhibit recruitment."
But the college says NPQH candidates should be spread evenly through the country because training is delivered via its nine regional centres. The college also caters for the full range of schools, including pupil referral units, even though these are exempt from the new requirements. Around 11,300 teachers and heads now have NPQH and there are 8,500 on the programme. Robin Attfield, assistant director of the NPQH, says the completion rate is around 90 per cent and improving. "Eligibility is the highest failure rate - without the right experience you don't get on the course."
If a school's perfect candidate did not have NPQH and wasn't registered, it could appoint them as an acting head and then recruit for the permanent post once the candidate had an NPQH place, says the college.
But it warns that the school would still be listed as carrying a headship vacancy; the governing body would be expected to be actively recruiting a permanent head; and a long-term acting headship could be detrimental to the school. The headteacher associations remain concerned about whether there will be enough potential heads with NPQH.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, believes it will further reduce the numbers of applications from which governors choose, particularly in the South-east. David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says one solution would be to let schools sign up a successful candidate for NPQH immediately on appointment - but the current regulations do not allow that.
He adds: "The recruitment market for heads is pretty fragile; we are facing a very significant exodus of heads. It's a gamble to introduce a mandatory qualification at such a time."
How it works
* All first-time headteachers appointed from April 1 must have the NPQH or be registered for it and complete it within four years
* From 2009, all first-time heads in England must already have the qualification
* There are two application rounds a year, in the spring and autumn for September and April starts
* It takes between four months and two years to complete, depending on candidates' previous training, experience and development needs
* Costs range from pound;550 to pound;3,670, depending on the training undertaken
* The National College for School Leadership picks up the training bill for candidates working in state schools, pupil-referral units, city technology colleges, city academies and non-maintained special schools
* Travel, subsistence, and supply cover costs have to be met by the school (except schools with 150 pupils or fewer)
* Training involves online learning, school-based assessments and visits to successful schools.
For more information see www.ncsl.org.uknpqh or phone the headship information line on 0845 716 5136