In the past the role of a head teacher was to run the staff and oversee children's education. These days, it's not quite so clear cut.
Career advancement in the teaching profession used to be a relatively simple matter. An ability to teach well could, by itself, qualify you to be a head teacher.
Today the situation is very different. Major reforms in education over the last 20 years have effectively given schools a free hand to control their own affairs. However, greater freedom has been accompanied by far greater responsibility. Today's head is burdened with wide-ranging managerial duties covering almost every aspect of a school's operation.
Many teachers are not well-suited to the demanding task of managing staff and large budgets. The National Association for Head Teachers (NAHT) claims that heads have a more stressful job than airline pilots and many cannot cope with such pressures. Because of this, they will soon have to demonstrate a capacity for managerial duties before they are allowed to assume a headship.
This will be achieved by the introduction of the first formal training measure for the men and women who aspire to run our state schools. The National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) is presently an optional extra for would-be heads, although not for much longer, as the School Standards Bill, about to receive royal assent, will make its completion mandatory.
The new qualification is a demanding one. And that's assuming that those wishing to move up to the level of head teacher have even been allowed to take it in the first place. '(Deputies) should already have substantial, successful experience and expertise in leadership and management in schools and elsewhere, combined with relevant professional knowledge and understanding,' says the Teacher Training Agency (TTA) literature. In short, they will already have needed to demonstrate a clear potential to become a head teacher.
Embryonic heads who get beyond this first stage undergo a rigorous 'needs' assessment, so that an action plan can be prepared to guide each of them through their subsequent training. All candidates have to take a compulsory module ('Strategic Leadership and Accountability') which tries to cover all of the varied demands facing head teachers in different types of school. They will also have to 'develop a strategic educational vision committed to raising achievement', according to the TTA, before showing that they can turn that vision into practice. Candidates must also be able to monitor, evaluate and review a school's effectiveness and be accountable to governors, staff, parents and pupils.
Depending on their skills needs, the would-be head teachers will also be able to pursue further training on issues such as managing and motivating teachers, developing their professional capabilities, and deploying staff and resources in an effective and efficient manner. Role-playing is a key part of the training. One assessment includes trying to resolve a dispute with a disgruntled teacher - played by an actor - and lasts two days. Those who fail the test may resit it within three years.
The immediate impact of the introduction of management training for head teachers may not be all that noticeable to the casual observer. But education experts think the move is one of the best ways to respond to the challenge of raising standards across the school system. 'Of course, the quality of the teacher is crucial,' says Michael Barber, head of the Government's Education Standards and Effectiveness Unit, head of the Government's education task force and Tony Blair's principal education advisor. 'But in a school where the management has created a positive, constructive climate, teachers who might struggle elsewhere perform effectively.'
Clearly there is a need for higher standards in the management of our schools. Many have annual budgets running into millions of pounds and employ 100 or more staff. Bruce Douglas, president of the Secondary Heads Association and principal of a large community college in Branston, Lincolnshire, believes that this scale of operation means that the skills and knowledge required by heads in today's schools are 'on a par with top managers from industry'.
The demand for new school 'managers' is, of course, partly driven by the need for every school to be seen to be coping better with the responsibility of handling large amounts of money. But it is also part of a concerted attempt to turn teachers into what Barber calls 'managers of learning'.
The moves towards establishing a new grade of so-called 'super teacher' (or Advanced Skills Teacher) should help them in this respect. The new post is designed to deter good teachers (but unsuitable managers) from being promoted out of the classroom. It will instead focus their attention on passing their knowledge onto less experienced teachers.
Whether there will be enough teachers around to listen and learn is another matter. There is a clear shortage at present. About a quarter of headships remain unfilled throughout the UK. In London the situation is even worse.
Out of 110 London headships advertised in the past year, 47 are still vacant. On a more positive note, education experts expect a rapid increase in administrative support staff to do the routine tasks that teachers say prevent them from actually teaching. Paperwork is a major concern, as has been illustrated by a number of high-profile campaigns to reduce red tape in schools.
It's far too early to judge whether the new head teacher qualifications will prove successful, but there are already worrying signs. Interest in the course is waning already. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), which is evaluating the programme, reports that considerably fewer aspirant head teachers applied for a NPQH in its second (and current) year of existence than in its first. Peter Birmingham, an NFER researcher who in June submitted an interim study to the TTA - which itself must report to education ministers later this summer - found that while 3,390 people in England and Wales took the qualification last year, the figure this year has fallen dramatically to just 651, well short of the annual target of some 1,000 deputies being trained. Part of this fall can be rationalised. There is often a lull in interest in new qualifications after an initial surge of enthusiasm, and the impending compulsion for the head teachers of the future to take the exam may mean that some deputies are merely delaying their enrollment.
A survey of some 100 Local Education Authorities (LEAs), suggests that some deputy heads already fear they have enough on their plate and are reluctant to take on something that remains optional.
Even so, there is a clear scepticism and perhaps even resentment to the new qualification in some quarters. In Dudley, West Midlands, for example, experienced deputies don't tend to see the need for yet more formal training, even in a subject as new as educational management, according to Ian Cleland, the LEA's chief inspector. 'It is the less experienced ones who are excited by the prospect of taking part, for the first time, in a programme of structured progression. They are the ones coming forward.'
There is also the problem of convincing some teachers that the qualification compares favourably with other, more established qualifications. Bruce Douglas chose to take a Masters degree in education management and would recommend it as an alternative. 'I was particularly interested in industrial theories of quality control, human motivation and systematic improvement.
These ideas have ... given me confidence in difficult situations and made me bolder in taking decisions and solving problems. They gave me a language to think with.'
Others are more prepared to give the new head teacher qualifications a chance. Howard Morrall, staff development adviser at the London Borough of Redbridge, says most of his local deputies who have been through the new training welcomed it, even though they had been forced to give up much of their free time to complete the course. Even here, however, there are a few gripes, says Morrall. 'They had one niggle, which on the face of it seems quite petty. They didn't see why they should have to pay for their own tea and coffee when attending the course. It seemed to confirm that, no matter how much extra sweat (teachers) put into education, at the end of the day they are still largely unloved.'
Whether we get better head teachers in the future doesn't just depend on qualifications, but on what happens after they have been obtained.
Mutual support networks are springing up in some LEAs, as a new generation of heads come to realise the importance of learning through sharing common problems - and solutions. In London's Hammersmith and Fulham, experienced heads are drafted by the council to act as mentors to their new colleagues.
In turn, the established heads are themselves counselled by senior business executives during training programmes dealing with staff appraisal, resource and time-management, as well as longer-term school improvement strategies.
'Being a head is quite a lonely job,' says Patrick Allan, the LEA's education officer. 'So we have started to create a strong ethos of professional support which hopefully staff can draw on throughout their careers in management.' There is also a continuous back-up service run by the authority to help heads with financial, legal or personnel problems as they arise.
'That is the new role of the LEA,' says Allan, 'to comfort the afflicted as well as to afflict the comfortable.'
School is a business like any other
The pace is brisk. Potential friction looms in the staff room and chaos threatens every classroom. Calm authority is essential. Christine Chapman feels she has what it takes to cope. Running a school is just like running any other business, says the head teacher of a pioneering secondary school in Margate, Kent. 'It's about meeting budget targets and being cost-effective. Today's head must have good financial acumen,' she says.
Chapman, former wife of Ken Livingstone MP, has been head of Hartsdown Technology College for seven years now and has an unambiguous view of what is required of her in her quest for higher education standards. A mind for figures and for making the best use of the annual budget is critical.
The demand for more teachers is constant because her school, which caters for 11-18 year olds, has become extremely popular. Currently 1,070 youngsters attend and the pressure is to take on more pupils each year.
Chapman puts children's health and safety first among her priorities.
'I must ensure we don't suffer any gas explosions, or that pupils don't electrocute themselves.' Equally she cannot afford to neglect her role as manager of 65 full-time teachers and a further 20 administrative staff.
She is overseeing a training programme to ensure all teachers become IT literate at a time when pupils each have their own e-mail address and the school is creating its own intranet. Chapman is also anxious to further develop communication links with schools abroad.
Like all head teachers, Chapman is accountable to the school's governors. Disregard this key relationship, she suggests, and you risk creating a mutual distrust that can hinder other duties.
One example is the potential minefield of removing weak or inefficient teachers. Chapman feels heads are vulnerable to malicious allegations from aggrieved staff who think they've been unfairly treated. 'We are ill-equipped and lack sufficient support in this area.'
She retains vivid memories of how, in her former capacity as head of an East London school for boys from the local Bangladeshi community, an industrial tribunal branded her sacking of a black teacher as 'unconsciously racist'. Chapman was forced to retaliate with legal action herself, culminating in a London High Court case. A high-profile hearing ensued: 'I was cleared, but my reputation was on the line.'
That the school is judged by the Office for Standards in Education to be in the top 15% of all schools in terms of cost-effectiveness attests to Chapman's management skills. But she worries that her role as educator is being suppressed. About half of each day is spent outside her office checking on the actual teaching and learning.
The Government's new National Professional Qualification for Headship is long overdue, says Chapman, who holds an Open University diploma in General Management. Equally important training came from her first job working in a bank. 'Not every aspiring head gets that sort of experience,' she notes, 'which is essential if schools are to be managed like a successful business.'
Chapman says that all of her duties mean that she is constantly juggling her time. 'I also have to work in the evenings, at weekends and during the holidays. It's exciting but very hard work.'.