The Government's promise this week to make the new National Professional Qualification for Headship a mandatory qualification as soon as possible (page 9) shows an admirable determination to ensure heads are properly prepared for leadership. Both the principle of a compulsory qualification and the improved management capabilities which ought to follow are to be welcomed unequivocally.
Once again, the Government is in a hurry to do good. That is laudable. But such haste is bound to gloss over some questions which need answers soon - if its ambitions are to be realised. Given the current difficulties in recruitment, for instance, will there be enough NPQH holders by the Government's deadline of 2002 - let alone the earlier date it would like to make it mandatory?
Will the largely untested qualification really guarantee better leadership skills? The independent review of the new award which is planned for next year may throw some light upon its consistency and reliability; but the proof of this pudding - better management and raised standards - will be in the eating. Before the NPQH is made compulsory, some indication that it is truly efficacious would seem to be as important as the fact that sufficient numbers had cleared a standard hurdle.
It might also be asked whether it is right to concentrate quite so exclusively on the figurehead manager when school improvement is such a team effort. It is not necessary to disparage "hero heads" in order to question whether a more effective middle management might not be just as urgent. OFSTED has certainly repeatedly pointed to weaknesses at departmental level in secondary schools. And yet the Teacher Training Agency seems to have put its national standards for subject leadership on the back burner. Proposals were published a year ago - with the expectation that pilot schemes would be under development by now. But Labour's election and its concentration on heads seem to have reversed the professional qualification for subject leaders into a siding.
More than 3,000 enrolling for the NPQH in its first year is encouraging - for secondary schools at least. But the take up of just 1,694 primary teachers falls well below the numbers required to fill the 2,000 vacancies for heads occuring annually, without even providing any choice of candidates.
Ministers need to accept that they bear a major responsibility for ensuring enough teachers who are capable of becoming heads are able to sign up for the new qualification. The existing support for those who do is not adequate. This impinges particularly harshly on primary schools and women: 40 per cent of NPQH candidates are in secondaries, though only 29 per cent of deputies are; the number of men signing up for the qualification in primary schools is high in proportion to the numbers of primary deputies who are male.
More than two out of three primary deputies are women. They get little non-contact time and on average already work even longer hours than primary heads do. The expectation that they will invest even more family time - and often pay their own fees - to train for extra responsibilities is as unreasonable as it is unrealistic. Even if schools themselves are altruistic enough to underwrite the training of another school's potential head, the burden on smaller primary budgets is proportionately higher.
A professional qualification for headteachers is quite rightly recognised as a vital national priority. But the wider imperative of school and teacher improvement means it must not be achieved by diverting funds from the support and training that is also required to transform teaching and learning in the classroom.
And in present circumstances, particularly in primary schools, it must be used creatively to encourage those who are able but reluctant to take on the greater responsibilities of headship - rather than be seen as a filter in the non-existent scramble for the top job.