If you think the NPQH is just for leadership development and not about aiming for the top job, then think again. The NCSL wants only trainees serious about promotion. Irena Barker reports
In just over 10 years, 30,000 people have studied for the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH). Plenty have relished the chance to mix with colleagues from around the country, bond and share ideas. Many have complained of its bureaucratic, tick-box approach to running a school. Unfortunately, only 10,750 have become heads.
This means thousands are sitting on their qualification - which costs taxpayers pound;3,070 a candidate.
Figures from Education Data Surveys show that one in seven headships advertised in January this year went unfilled. So, clearly, there are plenty of jobs.
Some headteachers say deputies and middle leaders are collecting the NPQH qualification as "a badge of honour", or using it as a form of professional development. Some have even complained that it is "too easy to pass".
By this time next year, all new heads will have to hold the qualification before they can take up a post. At the moment, it is sufficient to be signed up for the course.
The apparent lack of success in converting NPQH graduates into heads has led Steve Munby, chief executive of the National College for School Leadership (NCSL), to overhaul the programme. Now, the college says, only very serious contenders will be accepted. This, the college says, will give it a tighter grip on succession planning.
A leaflet publicising the new scheme asks for candidates who are "highly motivated" to be heads. They should not be more than 12 to 18 months from applying for a post, and ready to take up the job on graduation. Entry is being billed as tougher, with a two-day assessment to check if applicants are really ready to advance.
Others, who are not so ready for headship, will be encouraged to take part in the existing Leadership Pathways programme as a form of professional development.
Numbers accepted on to the course will plunge: 4,000 were recruited in 2007-08, but participation will halve to about 2,000 to 2,500 in 2008-09.
Keeley Ungerechts, a primary deputy head in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, is one of 150 people who have been accepted to take part in a pilot of the revamped programme next month. She has been sworn to secrecy on the content of the assessment day, but said: "They can throw anything at me at a head's interview now."
The redesign is not only about filtering out those who are not on the verge of headship. It is hoped that by making the course more personalised, it will take less time to complete. At the moment, candidates can take either a six- or 14-month route to qualification. The NCSL wants the new "trainee headteachers", as it now refers to them, to complete their modules in four to 12 months.
A personal programme will be created for each candidate during the initial assessment stages. Highly experienced teachers who can prove they have already covered certain areas of the course will be able to miss out modules.
Aspiring heads will now have to carry out a mandatory placement in a school unlike their own. For example, a teacher in an all-white rural comprehensive could spend two weeks at a multi-racial inner-city school.
The redesigned course will have a greater focus on the big-push initiatives of the day, including Every Child Matters, the 10-year Children's Plan, personalised learning, Building Schools for the Future, and 14-19 education.
The NCSL has also promised more use of "cutting edge technology" on the course. In other words, more of it will be online.
Participants will meet collectively less often, as their courses will be more diverse, but they will be encouraged to communicate online with other would-be heads doing the same modules at the same time.
The final assessment will take the form of a viva, with trainees being grilled by a panel of serving heads.
Toby Salt, the college's strategic director for school leadership development, said the new format better reflected the way school leaders learn.
"We know they learn more in context and more from each other, so the redesign hopes to give more of this," he said.
"There was a general concern that the NPQH tested potential but not necessarily ability in reality, but this has been addressed too."
The college aims to enrol 800 trainees at a MayJune recruitment round. There will be further rounds in September and December.
But what do headteachers and commentators think of the changes? Can restricting access to the course add weight to the qualification or solve the headship recruitment gap?
Professor John Howson, director of Education Data Surveys, has said the NCSL is performing a dangerous balancing act in restricting trainee numbers. "It's all very well asking teachers when they go on the course if they want to become heads, but their circumstances can change quite quickly," he said.
"They could actually end up with a shortage of people with NPQH. What they must not do with this relaunch is to make the recruitment situation worse."
However, critics of the existing course have cautiously welcomed some of the changes.
Dennis Richards, head of St Aidan's High in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, said: "I'm really glad there's been a recognition that the current NPQH has been a disaster. It has become a meaningless label.
"Thousands of teachers go on it, but the majority have no intention of becoming heads. People were being put off the job by the bureaucratic nightmare that is NPQH.
"Most people who have done it will speak positively about their fellow sufferers. It's a bonding experience if anything, but one that is pretty costly to the Exchequer."
Mr Richards added: "I like some of the aspects of the new NPQH, including the personalised planning and the focus on things such as the Every Child Matters agenda. It's key that heads are trained in these things.
"But I still think it would be more useful to do a qualification like this after you become a head and not before."
Debbie Coslett, head of Hayesbrook School, a boys' specialist sports college in Tonbridge, Kent, took her NPQH in 2000. She said it was useful for networking and sharing ideas, but offered little in terms of preparation for headship; her MBA had proved more useful.
Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "There seems to be less focus on the theory and deep underpinnings of leadership. I hope in making the course more school-based it won't mean teachers have less access to academics and educational thinkers.
"Clearly, there needs to be a change, as the numbers becoming heads are too low. But I hope the changes are the right ones."
HOW THE HEADSHIP PROGRAMME HAS CHANGED
- 4,000 recruited a year
- Two intakes a year
- Two routes: six months or 14 months
- Participants called "candidates"
- 43 per cent conversion to headship
- Initial assessment by written application, with supporting statement from headteacher
- Final assessment comes during a concluding NCSL residential session, involving role-play and other exercises
- Optional school visits
- Frequent regional gatherings for participants
- 2,000 to 2,500 recruited a year
- Four intakes a year
- Personalised routes: minimum four months, maximum 12 months
- Participants are called "trainee headteachers"
- Target of 85 per cent conversion to headship
- Initial assessment during two-day residential session at the NCSL in Nottingham, with time to create a personalised plan of study modules
- Final assessment is a viva, in front of a panel of serving headteachers
- Compulsory placement of 5-20 days in a school unlike their own
- More use of technology for communication (forums, blogs) between participants engaged in similar modules
- Forward planning for the top job
Deputy head Keeley Ungerechts, 40 (above), is one of 150 teachers who will take part in the pilot of the overhauled National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH).
She has taught in primary schools for 16 years and says her first love has always been with the children, in the classroom. But over the past three years, she has felt the call to leadership.
First she completed the National College for School Leadership's Leading from the Middle programme, then took a year out to work as a primary maths consultant for a local authority. Mrs Ungerechts obtained her deputy headship at Brompton Community Primary in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, in September last year, as she knew she would have to be school based for the NPQH.
The school has been "very, very supportive", she said. She hopes to apply for headship in 12-18 months.
To get on the pilot course, Mrs Ungerechts first had to attend a rigorous assessment day, which she said was almost impossible to prepare for. "There weren't many materials available beforehand, so you couldn't swot up," she said. "But I found the weekend very useful. It helped me see what I needed to work on."
She said she had faith in the new qualification to prepare heads for the job. "The bar has got to be raised as the role has changed so much. It's important to be trained up in all the latest initiatives.
"But the point is, you don't roll them all out in your school for the sake of it. You have to learn how to take from them what you can in the school you are in."