New concepts and sensible change can take a long time to root and bed down in Scottish education, where the pace of movement is in general measured by the number of years it takes for the country's largest union to experience any slight twitch of pressure or persuasion. I was involved in a policy group which first suggested to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton in 1993 that nineties headteachers do indeed need broader preparation for heading the modern school, and we pointed out at the time that this was one area where Scotland lagged considerably.
The Education Minister has now announced a mandatory qualification for aspiring headteachers. The compulsory element is greatly to be welcomed, for heads must be the only senior group in the Scottish workplace whose members are currently (and voluntarily) able to equip themselves with professional training by means of Scottish Office modules after they are selected and in post. What industry selection board would be impressed by the candidate who merely promised to tackle a master's in business administration? Or what hospital trust would reckon the surgeon aspiring to a senior post whose fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons was merely a pious aspiration?
Back in the eighties an Oxford organisation developed with the support of the Department for Education and Employment, industry and the School Governors' Association a system of voluntary assessment for aspirant heads - together with a parallel system of professional training on selection for school governors.
The new qualification is proposed at three levels: certificate, diploma and master's - and heads will require to have achieved diploma level before taking over a school. Already there are signs, amid cautious professional welcome for the concept, that the debate now to be carried forward may mire itself in the shallow marshes of in-school practical issues. The contrast being made between "education" and "administration" is only part of the picture. The wider aspects and the overview must not be lost or sidelined. Training for leadership? Even for vision?
The emotional intelligence that enables certain individuals to excel in team leading, in inspiring others at every level and in creating the elusive ethos which makes a good school may indeed be innate. But it can be developed, and should certainly receive recognition and emphasis in the training (and selection) processes.
Improved training cannot be divorced from a more professional approach to selection. For too long Scottish heads have been chosen as a result of a totally inadequate half-hour presentation with questions. The decision has too often depended on the mood of the appointments committee, itself overly reliant on the prejudices and interests of elected members.
The Oxford courses for aspirant heads offer an enriching dimension, and Scotland has something to learn from it. The key to the difference is individual assessment using techniques honed by the civil service, industry and the armed forces. It is offered voluntarily in advance of a career move. Assessment may be residential and would certainly be thorough, allowing the individual to build up a picture of strengths and weaknesses, using the most up to date assessment techniques and including psychometric testing, with analysis of time and stress management skills.
The Oxford-organisation tried and failed to find a foothold in Scotland 10 years ago. But there are Scottish university departments or colleges which by seizing this market opportunity would enrich the proposed programme by offering new opportunities for a more individual approach to upskilling for the top job.