We know that the professional leadership that a headteacher offers a school is critical to the standards achieved by its pupils. The best headteachers create a climate in which children are able and willing to learn, and know that the school has high expectations of them. They make sure that teachers are given the opportunities to do the best possible job for their pupils.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the Teacher Training Agency's National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH), which is designed to prepare aspiring headteachers for the ultimate leadership challenge, has attracted considerable coverage. A hard-bitten few have tried to maintain that it will be a bureaucratic nightmare, overloading already hard-worked deputies and focusing on the wrong things. But more objective critics see the NPQH for what it is - a real boon to the education service, ensuring a much better supply of headteachers than we have at the moment, all of whom will be focused on the top priority of securing high quality learning in their schools.
Most of the very welcome coverage of the NPQH helps spread the message to the profession as a whole that here at last is a qualification that is intended to equip aspiring heads to take on the additional responsibilities of headship. We need headteachers who can move confidently and successfully into their first post. Dynamic, and focused on raising pupils' levels of achievement, and with a single-mindedness in pursuit of high standards - these will be headteachers who have a clear vision of where a school should be going and how it is going to get there.
This new breed of headteacher is one that embraces the exciting teaching possibilities of new technology, who recognises that there are tried and tested methods of raising standards in the classroom, especially in the core areas of literacy and numeracy, and who makes sure they are implemented in his or her school. A headteacher who leads strategically, carries a senior management team along towards shared objectives and insists on teamwork that is built on a shared vision and common objectives.
These are exciting times. Never before has there been a practical professional qualification for those seeking the highest office in school education. The NPQH is expected to form the basis of the first ever mandatory headship qualification. There will be an increased pool of properly prepared candidates for promotion to headship. Every governing body will, within a few years, be able to select candidates knowing that each has had the practical, professional preparation needed for effective school leadership, based on clear national standards for headteachers.
The response to the NPQH so far has been gratifying. Within weeks of opening an information line about the qualification, more than 12,000 calls were received asking for further information. Deputies and other experienced teachers, coupled with those who have left teaching for jobs in education administration, have quite obviously been yearning for just such a qualification. Of course there is a variety of masters' courses on offer, and prior achievement through a MA or similar course is taken into account by the NPQH. But the great attraction of the NPQH is that it offers a more rounded and relevant, professional and practical approach. It is a bespoke qualification that offers exactly the preparation a head will need.
In a few years, we shall be asking: however did we manage as an education service before we had the NPQH? The answer will be that, while there have always been successful headteachers who have developed themselves within the job, there were too many headteachers who never got the preparation or continuing professional development that they needed, with obvious and adverse consequences for their schools and pupils.
We must learn from past mistakes and work together to get the right results. And we must learn from industry and other sectors, using performance management, with appraisal at its heart, to secure increased effectiveness and school improvement.
The current reality facing the profession - and generations of school pupils - is a shortage of high quality headteachers. Too many are leaving the profession; not enough are coming through the ranks.
This is a matter for concern but not despair. Creative and lasting solutions can be found, and the NPQH will contribute enormously. Fast-tracking outstanding middle managers through to headship - and through headship training - is a must. And do we really want to rule out the possibility that some schools might be led by people who have great leadership skills, and a good understanding of how effective teaching is secured, simply because they lack experience in the classroom?
I have focused on the NPQH here because it has been the subject of recent comment. But it is just one strand in a three-fold strategy for school leadership.
It deals with training the future generations of school leaders. But other key strands are represented by Headlamp, a programme designed to ensure that newly- appointed heads have the support they need to perform their duties well; and by the work we have begun on providing a high quality, leading edge training programme for serving headteachers - a constituency on which so much of the success of our schools in the next few years will depend.
The NPQH is based on clear standards for headship. Those standards are, in turn, part of the framework of professional standards, which aims to set out clear expectations for teachers at key points in the profession. The standards framework will help teachers to plan and monitor their development, training and performance effectively, and to set clear, relevant targets for improvement. It will bring greater consistency to teacher development at all stages of their careers and provide recognition and support for their achievements.
And it will provide a basis for informing the public of the very high levels of knowledge, understanding and skills held by the best teachers and by the leaders of our schools, thus increasing the status and self-esteem of the profession.
Today's successful headteachers look outward. They engage in constructive debate about teaching and teacher training. They address immediate problems, but think strategically too. As we enter the new millennium, they are not afraid to think ahead to future potential problems by looking squarely at the future trends of teaching, training and school leadership. They ask: will our teachers be deployed for the next 50 years in the way that they have been for the past 50? How might better trained classroom assistants transform the life of teachers? What is the full potential of information technology?
They are not daunted by such questions, but excited by them, and they seek to find answers that bear directly on the issue that concerns us all - improving the quality of teaching and teacher training in order to raise standards of pupils' achievements. Such headteachers exist. The NPQH will ensure that there are many more of them.
Anthea Millett is chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency