Weak principals could be "destroyed" by some of the tougher elements of the new training, warned David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. He praised as "outstanding" the Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers (LPSH), upon which elements of the new FE programme are based. But he warned: "College principals should be performing satisfactorily or better before they go into the programme.
"The main lesson for the college sector will be to make sure your principal is the right person for this programme, and be prepared for it to be an inspiring in-service development process. If your principal is performing below the level of satisfactory, then the principal could be destroyed by this process."
Part of the course is a "360-degree appraisal", where feedback on a principal's leadership style is sought from other members of staff. The appraisal is part of the new principals' training programme as well as the already established training for school heads.
David Hart warned that this is not for the faint-hearted. "The overall score for LPSH must be in the order of nine out of ten," he said. "It is rigorous - not everybody has survived it! 360-degree appraisal can be extremely uncomfortable. There are worries that some local education authorities have been putting in headteachers who are not ready for that experience."
The leadership training for serving heads was introduced in November 1998, aimed at those who had been doing the job for five years or more; 3,400 have been through the programme in its first year.
Reena Keeble, head of Cannon Lane first school in Harrow, Middlesex, with 360 pupils aged four to eight, survived the programme. "You go through this course feeling quite vulnerable and exposed," she said. One head just broke down. "The week itself was very draining - it's not or fools. But the whole experience was very positive."
Why did she sign up for it? She had done a number of management courses but felt they didn't fit her needs or were too theoretical.
"I really wanted to have a chance to think and reflect on the practices in my school. I have been a head for eight years. I really felt I needed something to move me further. I was becoming stale."
Weeks before the course began, she was sent questionnaires on her leadership style, to be completed by her and members of her staff.
"I might think I'm a brilliant manager, but if other people don't perceive me as that then my leadership may not be that good.
"You do have to be pretty strong to go through this course. You don't know what it's going to throw at you until you get there. What was interesting for me was that how I perceived myself was exactly how my staff perceived me."
The course looked at personal qualities and style of leadership and areas for improvement, with constant feedback as to how you were progressing.
"The emphasis is very much on the diagnostic picture, on personal problems at school and how to resolve them. I came away with some really good answers to a number of questions.
"And when I returned to school, it was absolutely brilliant. It prepared me for my Ofsted inspection in a way Ididn't think was possible.
"The most productive thing to come out of that course was forming professional friendships with colleagues from other authorities. We now speak on the Internet almost weekly. We use it as a sounding board."
Reena Keeble believes that despite its harsh lessons, college principals will benefit from the new training.
"It will enable you to reflect on your own institution. If you're prepared to make a commitment and be honest with yourself, you will get a lot out of it."