Paper qualification should not be a passport

6th November 1998 at 00:00
When I fly off to Spain on holiday, I assume that the pilot has been trained to fly the plane. I also take it for granted that the guy who trained him has himself had occasion to fly a plane once or twice in his career. Poor performance in this area could have serious consequences, not least for my prospects of getting a return on my superannuation payments.

My own training to be a head was perfunctory in the extreme. Unusually, I had the benefit of a few years' experience working within the education authority, which I now value highly as preparation for my current role. The more commonly trodden route through principal teacher, assistant and depute head to headteacher appears to be logical, but can be detrimental to the peripheral vision.

When the naive euphoria of appointment was just subsiding, I was invited to an induction course of two or three days' duration. Various officers were drafted in to enlighten the eager novices on the innards of the system. I cannot recall any input from a head who had actually done the job.

Since being appointed to Holy Rood, I have attended courses on various aspects of school management, which have at least reassured me that I am flying the right way up. However, I have found the most valuable and consistent source of learning not in courses but in colleague headteachers.

There is always a fellow head around who has encountered a similar dilemma to the one I am facing. Hamish Purves at Portobello has seen it all before, while Willie Crosbie at Castlebrae remains unfailingly resilient in spite of the difficult socio-economic environment in which he operates.

Strange as it may seem, another form of training which I found to be invaluable was the Desert Storm-like invasion of the school by Her Majesty's inspectors. When the stones were all turned over at once, the headteacher was presented with a pretty conclusive picture of what was happening and what needed to happen.

The latest wheeze from government south of the border is a management college for headteachers. It has been portrayed in some of the press as a rehabilitation centre for failing heads, a kind of List D school for delinquent school managers. It is easy to see the appeal of such a simplistic approach to the problems of managing schools. Heidie's Hall will capture the imagination of the populace, a bit like the Drugs Tsar or the Millennium Dome.

The Scottish Office proposals to establish a Scottish Qualification for Headship have much more to recommend them. The suggested areas of study are all highly relevant to the core business of running a school, including managing the learning process, resources and finance, policy and planning. I didn't notice a module included on Managing Buses or Chasing Up Cleaners, but I'm sure that these will follow in due course.

The proposals acknowledge that success as a headteacher demands more than competence in the functional aspects of management. It requires vision, sound judgment and the ability to motivate others. A skin like a rhinoceros also helps.

Headteachers have a vital role in shaping the development of schools, in establishing a positive ethos, and ultimately in determining success or failure. Appropriate training and peer support are essential ingredients in the mix of factors which will ensure school leadership of a high quality.

There is of course a danger that a paper qualification comes to be regarded as an automatic passport to appointment as a head. The driving test provides a parallel, where millions have documentary evidence of their ability to drive, but the roads are swarming with eejits.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh.

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