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Why skills are not enough

Academics have criticised the narrow focus of training for heads, reports Neil Levis.

THE model of training for headteachers used by the Teacher Training Agency came under attack from academics at a conference last week. They said it was inadequate and used the wrong approach.

For modern qualifications such as the National Professional Qualification for Headship, the agency requires heads to display a range of tightly defined skills or "competences".

But the two researchers - who are not in the education field, but work at Glamorgan University's business school - say this approach is too narrow.

Michael Connolly, the school's director, and Norah Jones, associate director, worked with heads in south Wales on a management course that used the "competence" method. They concluded that a more wide-ranging approach to preparing heads for their jobs was necessary.

"The competence approach does not fully deal with leadership and, in particular, with the very important issue of providing a vision for the school," says their report.

The researchers presented their findings at a conference, organised by BEMAS, the national school management network, in Cambridge last week.

Norah Jones worked with a small group of heads in the Rhondda Valley for two years, taking them through a level 5 national vocational qualification in management, equivalent to a postgraduate award.

From the start, it was apparent there would be problems.

Initially, the heads found the language used in the course difficult and hard to apply to their circumstances.

For example, they could not decide what were the "services", "products" and "systems" in education, as demanded by the competency approach.

Because the competency training method focused on skills it risked neglecting knowledge (for example knowledge of the law) tht heads needed.

"The competency system ... only tests skills that can be measured," say the two researchers.

"Knowledge is included in the competence model where necessary, but it is only knowledge that can be demonstrated, for example, using one's knowledge of the Equal Opportunities Act when selecting staff."

Moreover there were doubts over how much training alone could achieve.

The heads had all been doing the job for five years and felt that a lot of their knowledge stemmed from experience, not simply from what they had learned on courses.

Heads also questioned the use of business thinking in schools. The heads did not take an accountant's approach to their work. Financial decisions were based on professional educational values, not just the figures.

The South Wales schools were all in an area of severe poverty and the heads saw social work as an important part of their role, but none of this was reflected in the course.

However there were also benefits from the exercise.

As Jones and Connolly point out: "The necessity to collect evidence (of skills) in a portfolio forced them (heads) into keeping more organised records and improved their administration."

Moreover, there were many examples of critical reflection that helped heads improve: they became better at monitoring, selecting and appraising staff and in building good relationships with governors.

The message seems to be that, though training that focuses on competences can boost certain key skills, it will not produce a "complete" head. Vital qualities that are difficult to measure such as vision and leadership look to be beyond its scope.

"The competent primary headteacher: broadening the management competence approach or abandoning it", by Norah Jones and Michael Connolly, Business School, Glamorgan University

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