Should heads be certifiable?

8th March 1996 at 00:00
Aspiring headteachers may need a special qualification. Gerald Haigh looks at the implications

At the Conservative Conference last October, the idea of a recognised qualification for headship was little more than an item in a speech by Mrs Shephard. Now, though, just few months on, the reality is nearer than you may think.

So much so that if you are, today, a head of department who intends applying for headships by the end of the century then whether or not you arm yourself along the way with the planned National Professional Qualification for Head Teachers is going to be an issue for you.

How will you do this? Perhaps you will take on a distance learning course, or attend local training sessions. There might be some means by which the courses you already attend will be accredited and the work you do in school could be recognised. Nothing is certain, except that, obviously, some form of assessment is going to be needed.

Clearly, it is not only aspirant heads who need to know about the qualification. Heads will want to know which of their teachers ought to be identified as candidates, and how the training will fit into their school programme. Governors seeking to appoint heads will want to know what the qualification means and how much weight to give to it. The existence of an accredited and prestigious paper qualification saying, in effect, that the bearer is ready for headship, is bound to have far-reaching implications both for individual teachers and for schools.

This is why it is important for all interested individuals and groups to be involved in the consultation which the Teacher Training Agency has just launched. A number of key issues seem likely to emerge as the consultation and the first pilot programme (starting this September) go forward.

One is the extent to which the qualification might become an essential requirement for headship. A balancing act is in progress here, because the qualification cannot be seen to interfere with the rights of governors to appoint whoever they choose. The stated principles behind it make this clear, and were reinforced by Esther Williams, in charge of Training and Development for the National Association of Head Teachers.

"Individuals bring something special to a job which is difficult to quantify in terms of tasks and skills. They may be very successful in one school and less so in another, and the decision on who is the best person is the responsibility of the governors. The qualification should in no way seek to replace that."

On the other hand, common sense says that if the qualification carries real clout - and there is no point in it if it does not - not only will aspirant heads feel disadvantaged without it, but governors will look for it. No one can forecast, for example, to what extent a selection committee facing a stack of applications might use the qualification as a means of preliminary "weeding out".

It follows that if the new heads' qualification is so important, then anyone who needs it, or is eligible, should be able to try for it. Esther Williams is concerned as to what extent there will be equality of access "geographically, financially, and through various barriers that may exist within schools". The questions on access are legion. On what grounds would a head or governing body agree or refuse to support a teacher in taking the qualification, bearing in mind that by no means all heads have been deputies?

The TTA's consultation document uses, at one point, the phrase "eligible aspiring deputies', and goes on to ask for feedback about the concept of eligibility.

A major obstacle to access is obviously going to be the availability of funds. Although the Secretary of State, in the words of the consultation document "has indicated that she would like some central funding to be made available", it is clear that the government are not going to cover everything, and part of the purpose of the consultation is to take soundings on how the money should be spent. A key issue is how money is divided between provision and assessment.

Esther Williams sees a conflict developing here, because a credible qualification demands good, and therefore possibly expensive, assessment. "If there's 'x' amount of money and it's needed for assessing the qualification, then how do they develop the skills? We would want funds targeted on professional development."

Arguably - and the consultation document asks about this - existing courses could be focussed towards the qualification, and there will surely be an important place for school-based work. As Esther Williams pointed out, though, there are big differences in the range of on-the-job training opportunities available to senior teachers.

"The deputy of a small school will incur supply costs even to shadow a colleague in another school." Neither can you assume that things will be better in a big school, she said. "The skills proposed for the qualification are very broad, and a senior deputy may have a job description that relates only to a highly focussed area."

One answer to this is to rotate senior staff around the various jobs to broaden their experience. This, though, raises the question of the "career deputy", who does not aspire to headship but wants to do his or her present job as well as possible. Esther Williams mentioned career deputies, as did John Sutton of the Secondary Heads Association. "If there is pressure to rotate deputies, then that may not be good for the person who does not want to move to another area just so that someone else can gain experience."

It is these questions, among many others, that the current consultation is intended to address. The overall mood within the major heads' organisations, though, is positive. Esther Williams, while pointing out that "It will be some time before the infrastructure is there to make the qualification fully operational," welcomes the fact that "attention is being paid at national level to the need to prepare people appropriately for a very important job".

For his part, John Sutton sees "no problem with it as a concept. The important thing is to make sure that the whole process is very close to the profession, practitioner-led and assessed."

After taking initial soundings last autumn the TTA has now sent a consultation paper to a wide range of professional associations, governors' bodies, local authorities and other organisations. It has also gone to a representative five per cent sample of schools, and is available to others on request.

The issues raised in the consultation paper include an outline of the proposed national standards (see box below right) and suggests detailed tasks and skills.

Other sections of the document outline possible approaches to training, to assessment and to funding and eligibility issues. In each case, a range of ways forward is proposed, and questions are asked. Returned consultation papers are due in by April 15. The next stage will be a trial, during the academic year 1996 to 1997, with volunteer heads, schools, providers and assessors.

The qualification proper will be implemented in September 1997.

Further copies of the consultation paper are available from The Continuing Professional Development and Research Team, Teacher Training Agency, Portland House, Stage Place. London. SW1E 5TT (0171 925 3764) e-mail: tta@gtnet.

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