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As consultation wraps up on the mandatory qualification for college principals, Don Lillistone argues that we are in danger of building even more barriers between schools and sixth form colleges.

I have recently successfully completed the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH). Nothing unusual in that, except that I believe that I am the first serving principal of a sixth form college to gain the qualification.

After ten years' service as a principal, I followed the NPQH course for a purely pragmatic reason.

As a result of ad hoc decisions in Middlesbrough that have destabilised the pattern of provision, coupled with a significant demographic downturn in the borough, it had been planned that two 11-16 schools and the sixth form college of which I am principal would be replaced by a single 11-18 school.

That plan will not now be implemented for legal and financial reasons, but, had it been seen through, as a sixth form college principal, even with many years' 11-18 experience, I would not have been eligible to apply for the headship of the new school without NPQH. Why is this?

Since April 2004, in order to be eligible to apply for the headship of a maintained school, a candidate must have NPQH or be an already serving head.

Prior to the implementation of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, sixth form colleges were under schools regulations and their 'principals' worked under headteacher pay and conditions.

The 1992 act incorporated sixth form colleges, and made them part of the further education sector. As a result, their principals were no longer regarded as headteachers.

I must, at this point, make crystal clear that I believe the NPQH programme to be well founded and well delivered. The national standards are cogently defined and have stood the test of time.

Wrong timing

The staff who delivered the programme were the epitome of professionalism, and I would have benefited enormously from such a programme, had I taken it before my appointment as principal.

In my position, however, there was little I could gain from the programme beyond the pleasure of conversing and working with consummate professional colleagues, because, of course, the standards, personal characteristics and attributes required of a headteacher are exactly the same as those required of a sixth form college principal.

Only in an education system such as ours, that we allow to develop by accretion rather than rational planning, could we erect an artificial barrier to a sixth form college principal becoming a headteacher.

In France, for example, the pre-appointment training for the headteachers of 'colleges' (11-15 schools) has been one and the same as that provided for the principals of 'lyceÚs' (15-19 colleges) for the past 15 years, and staff transfer smoothly from one type of institution to the other.

The muddle in England is further complicated by the fact that the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act has led to the recent creation of a small number of sixth form colleges under schools regulations.

The result of this is that the headteacher of a school, or a deputy with NPQH, would be eligible to apply for the post of principal of one of these new sixth form colleges, but principals of 'incorporated' sixth form colleges would not, unless they first gained the NPQH qualification!

Spot the difference

It is important to draw attention to this anomaly at this time, as the Centre for Excellence in Leadership is carrying out its consultation on a proposed mandatory qualification for college principals.

The six 'key areas' of the National Standards for Headteachers are defined as:

  • shaping the future

  • leading learning and teaching

  • developing self and working with others

  • managing the organisation

  • securing accountability

  • strengthening community

The proposed six 'elements' of the National Leadership and Management Standards for college principals are:

  • planning for the future

  • leading learning and teaching

  • recruiting and developing people

  • managing finance, operations and resources

  • liability, responsibility and risk

  • working with partners, employers and networks

The one-for-one equivalence could hardly be more striking.

It is vital that the proposed mandatory qualification for college principals and NPQH should be deemed to be equivalents.

If they are not, we shall be in the ludicrous situation in which the headteacher of a school can become the principal of a 1998 act sixth form college, but not the principal of a 1992 act sixth form college.

Such a situation would merely serve to prove the accuracy of George Mikes' humorous observation that "the British have always been a freedom-loving people, and the freedom to create a muddle is one of their most ancient civic rights."

Don Lillistone is Principal of St Mary's College, Middlesbrough.

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