The Government's plans to make the National Professional Qualification for Headship mandatory for all new heads by 2002 are looking increasingly unrealistic as take-up of the award dwindles.
Some 4,150 potential heads, including 250 involved in a trial programme, signed up for the qualification the first year it was available, from September 1997.
Set against the Teacher Training Agency's projection of 5,000 candidates on the first three NPQH cohorts, this represents a significant shortfall - though not as big as this year's is likely to be. Applications for cohort five are still being processed, but with just 750 candidates joining cohort four at the beginning of this term, demand for the qualification seems to be falling off.
The Teacher Training Agency denies that this adds up to a recruitment crisis. A spokesman says the initial interest in a new qualification was bound to fall off once recruitment moved into "steady state". The agency also rejects suggestions that the new accelerated route to the headship qualification is an attempt to make up numbers on the programme.
This fast-track route has been criticised by the National Association of Head Teachers, which has said it cannot possibly provide the necessary training for future heads. The new route has also incensed some of those who are taking the standard qualification.
Sue Major, a senior teacher at a Walsall secondary school, wrote to the agency, saying: "If the current programme is facing recruitment difficulties, as numbers would suggest, a full review - not a quick-fix knee-jerk reaction - is needed to identify and resolve issues raised for the benefit of all current and prospective candidates."
But Frankie Sulke, the agency's head of teacher training, stresses that all candidates have to go through the same rigorous assessment. "There are a lot of teachers out there who are extremely close to headship," she says."Some have been acting heads and others don't need to go through the kind of full training programme that those who are just getting to be deputies or who are very early on in their careers as deputies need. So we wanted something that was much more fit for purpose for those candidates."
Ms Major's letter goes on to ask what impact the accelerated route will have on retention and future recruitment when a select group of cohort four candidates passes the qualification long before most of those in the first three cohorts.
While insisting that recruitment - especially of women candidates - is healthy, the Teacher Training Agency is concerned about the proportion of primary to secondary-school teachers coming on to the course - a ratio of around 11 to eight, compared to a national ratio of 16 primary schools to four secondaries.
"We are trying to get proportionately more primary school candidates through but that is not really an issue about NPQH in many cases," says Frankie Sulke. "Often it's an issue about primary teachers not coming forward for headship, which is why the TTA has been doing what it can to boost the status of headship."
Although the low take-up of the qualification clearly reflects a wider disenchantment with headship, evidence recently presented to the Commons select committee on education and employment also points to problems with the qualification itself.
Witnesses told the MPs on the committee that in the long term, a mandatory qualification for heads would be a good thing. They also spoke highly of the quality of the training offered by centres delivering the qualification, but some felt this training needed to take more account of the differences, for example, between running a secondary school and a nursery school.
Several witnesses blamed the recruitment shortfall on potential candidates' fears that they would not have the time to do the very demanding programme of headship training on top of their jobs.
School management structures could also be preventing many deputy heads - the main target group for the NPQH - from going for the qualification. Many of the practical assessment tasks that candidates have to tackle involve whole-school issues, such as monitoring and evaluating part of a school development plan.
Yet a study of all the primary schools in one outer London borough found that none of the 20 deputy heads who took part would be able to carry out these tasks unless their jobs changed significantly.
The study, by the International Educational Leadership Centre of the Lincoln School of Management, confirms earlier research findings that deputy heads still spend much of their time on mundane administrative work.Few have the real management responsibilities they need in order to get on to the NPQH programme in the first place.
Trevor Male, director of headteacher development at Lincoln, believes things are changing in some schools. "In those schools that are constantly seeking to improve their practice, there is clear evidence that they are trying to encourage staff to take extra responsibility."
He adds: "If we are going to develop the school leaders we need, then we are going to have to provide opportunities for senior teachers to try things out and to get feedback on their performance. Otherwise we are going to be managing by formula."