"Flawed" selection processes for a new headteachers' qualification will lead to a mediocre generation of future school leaders, critics have warned.
Radical changes have been made to the mandatory national professional qualification for headship (NPQH) to double the number of people applying for the top job.
The course is now shorter, more personalised and "trainee headteachers", as they are now known, have to gain work experience by running a school radically different from their own for a short period.
Numbers being accepted on to the course have declined as selection has got tougher, leading to accusations of unfairness from those refused a place.
The National College for School Leadership (NCSL), which runs it, is conducting a review into the new course and bosses promise changes will be made if problems are found.
In the past, only 43 per cent of those who completed the NPQH went on to become heads. To change this, the numbers allowed to take the course will be reduced from 3,000 to 2,000 eventually. And the qualification is open only to those who want to be a school leader within 12 to 18 months.
The restructuring is designed to allow candidates to complete the qualification more quickly. Previously it took six or 14 months, but it is now four to 12 months, with the average time about eight months.
Around 1,630 trainee heads are now enrolled on or going through the assessment process. The college has received 2,561 applications, about two-thirds of which were successful. There have been seven appeals from unsuccessful applicants. Previously, there were about 33 appeals a year.
Frances Nation, a Year 6 teacher from St Stephen's Junior School in Canterbury, Kent, has now been rejected twice, despite being an advanced skills teacher and rated highly in Ofsted inspections.
Stuart Pywell, her head, has complained to the NCSL. "We feel that the application process must be desperately flawed, because someone of Frances' calibre is neither being identified from the application process, nor being offered the appropriate quality support to make the application," he said.
"This is a sad state of affairs when NCSL staff are out of touch with schools. It probably explains the mediocrity of school leadership that the media and various interested parties refer to today."
Defending the course, NCSL chief executive Steve Munby said the graduation rate was 97 per cent. He wants 85 per cent of those to go on to become heads.
"Assessment now comes at the beginning of the course rather than the end, so we would expect to see fewer people coming through - that's the point of the changes," he said. "The last thing we want to do is prevent people from going on to become fantastic heads, but there has to be rigour in a national qualification."
Mr Munby advised people to reapply and said a previous application would not harm their chances as requests are considered anonymously.
READY FOR LEADERSHIP: ASSESSMENT FIRST THEN A GRILLING AT THE END
The course covers six "key areas" of headship, which are:
- Shaping the future
- Leading, learning and teaching
- Self-development and working with others
- Managing the organisation
- Securing accountability
- Strengthening community
It is mandatory to hold or have a place on the national professional qualification for headship in order to apply for a first headship.
The qualification was introduced in 1997. In 2004, it became compulsory for all first-time heads in the maintained sector to hold the qualification or to have secured a place on the programme.
Trainees have to spend between five and 20 days at another school, work with other trainee heads and attend events such as conferences, seminars and master classes.
Each candidate receives seven hours of individual coaching.
Those whose applications are successful have to go on a two-day selection event and complete assessment activities designed to reflect the work they will have to do as heads.
The personalised aspect of the course means experienced teachers who can prove they have already covered certain areas will be able to miss out modules. The changes also mean participants are meeting less often, because they are all completing different courses.
The final assessment is in the form of a viva, with trainees being grilled by a panel of serving heads.