The controversial Fast Track scheme has been reborn as a leadership development programme. Martin Whittaker reports
If teaching was a game of snakes and ladders, the Fast Track teaching programme would be that big ladder that reaches right to the top of the board. Four years after it began, two dozen high fliers have now graduated through the scheme into senior management - including the first to make headteacher.
Critics say that the ladder was offered too soon, giving trainee teachers a leg up before they had even set foot on the first square. Now the rules have changed and the programme is no longer recruiting trainee teachers.
Instead, Fast Track has been "refocused" into a leadership development programme for qualified teachers.
For one fast-tracker at least, the change couldn't come soon enough. She was among last year's cohort of trainee teachers who entered the scheme, and is now a 24-year-old newly-qualified teacher. She believes the scheme gave her and fellow entrants false expectations.
"PGCE students just aren't ready for anything other than just learning how to be a teacher," she admits. "To be totally honest, I don't think PGCE students can do it until they have experienced what life is like in schools. There was very much a sense of fast-track students feeling like an elite group.
"There was a real batch of stuck-up, irritating, pretentious people on my course, saying, 'Yeah, I'm going to be a head in five years' time.'"
Headteachers have also welcomed the shift of emphasis away from teacher recruitment and towards leadership development. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "Our position on Fast Track has always been that you should prove yourself with 11C on a Friday afternoon before being fast-tracked.
"And the fact that Fast Track is now moving to the best young teachers with greatest leadership potential I think is excellent."
The scheme was introduced in 2001, recruiting potential high- fliers among qualified and trainee teachers. It supports teachers for up to five years or until they gain a leadership post. But it got off to a shaky start.
There was criticism of low numbers of candidates and its cost. It was described by Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis as "the most expensive recruitment flop in the history of teacher recruitment." The programme has so far cost pound;44.5 million over four years and the most recent figures estimated 200506 alone would cost pound;23 million. About 1,800 teachers are on the scheme, 400 of them in teacher training.
So far, 24 have graduated to formal senior leadership roles. One is a primary head, six are deputy heads, seven are assistant heads, eight are advanced skills teachers and two are local authority advisers.
The high-fliers have had a mixed reception. It is a topic which features regularly on the TES's online staffroom forum, with some regarding the scheme as valuable professional development, while others see the hothouse as a poor substitute for maturity and experience.
The DfES now sees the scheme as a weapon in the battle to address the gap left by the increasing number of headteacher retirements. Its new role is confirmed by a mention in the education white paper.
The signs are that the scheme is being more cautious about how it spends: one incentive for young teachers to apply for Fast Track used to be the list of perks. Trainees got a pound;5,000 tax-free bursary and gained recruitment and retention points worth pound;2,000 a year after their first year of teaching, as well as other goodies including a laptop.
Changes mean no more free laptops, and schools will no longer be reimbursed for the extra pound;2,000 a year previously paid to fast-trackers.
Qualified teachers applying for the scheme since September 2005 will get a new package of pay and incentives, currently under review.
The DfES says: "The budget has been refocused to prioritise the mentoring and coaching aspect of the scheme, and to help teachers progress faster towards leadership roles. Current Fast Track teachers and trainees and everyone who applied during the current recruitment round will continue to receive the incentives that were advertised when they applied to the programme."
Meanwhile the DfES is understandably keen to promote its fast-track champions.
Its biggest success story is 29-year-old Liz Robinson - the first fast-tracker to get a headship. She takes over as head of Surrey Square primary school in the London borough of Southwark this term. She taught for two years before joining the scheme.
She says she looked around at her university peers, some of whom were taking highly-paid jobs in the City. "Becoming a teacher - and a primary teacher in particular - wasn't seen as a very high-brow thing to do," she said.
Ms Robinson described the programme as excellent, adding: "I absolutely adored it."
She is infuriated by the negative response fast-trackers often experience.
"What it's really about is people who are bright and who are committed to a career in education," she said. "What's so bad about that? OK, it's uncomfortable but that's because there's never been a culture of meritocracy in the teaching profession. It's been a culture of hang around long enough and you'll get your badge."