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Deputes put heads together

SAM NICHOLSON was impressed with the materials her headteacher was finding online and bringing into Foulford Primary in Cowden-beath, Fife.

"She would arrive in the morning with a bunch of policies other schools had written, or she would come out with all these ideas from this wonderful website called Heads Together," she says.

But when the young depute head asked if she could use the site, the response was less impressive.

"I was told, 'No, you have to be a headteacher'. It was disappointing. So when they were looking for volunteers at the beginning of Deputes Together, I jumped in."

Since then, 350 depute heads from around Scotland have taken the same plunge and begun using the new online community launched in February by Learning and Teaching Scotland.

"We seem to be kicking at an open door," says Phil Galbraith, former headteacher and now LTS online communities co-ordinator. "Deputes can feel a little neglected. Headteachers are often out networking and talking to the local authority. But it's difficult to set up networks for deputes, as it is much harder to get them out of school."

While Heads Together took four years to reach a membership of 2,400, this is next summer's target for Deputes Together, says Mr Galbraith. "There are only 3,000 depute heads in the whole of Scotland, so that's quite a challenge but achievable, I think."

Some of the features of Heads Together are now shared with Deputes Together. These include a hotseat, in which leaders usually but not always from education make themselves available to answer members' questions. The most popular have been former education minister Peter Peacock and HMIE chief Graham Donaldson although footballer Kenny Dalglish was also well received.

There is a shared electronic library, the cybrary, with policies and action plans, which is well used, says Mr Galbraith. "There is also a shared forum where heads and depute heads can discuss things with each other."

But perhaps the most useful feature of the new online community, says Ms Nicholson, are the forums that enable depute heads to share their concerns, ideas and insights with other depute heads. "You can ask questions that open up new discussion topics. It is very informative to just read through what other people are writing about.

"It's usually topics that are pertinent to our job at the time. So it gets me thinking through things."

Recent forum topics have included the Scottish Qualification for Headship. "This is deputes being really honest about how it has or hasn't supported their professional development, and advising others on whether to do it or not quite a heated discussion," she says.

The deputes have been sharing ideas on parent councils, good practice on peer learning, and perspectives on children with additional support needs. "We had some fascinating discussions on how the nitty-gritty of the ASL Act has been interpreted and implemented in different authorities. It was amazing how many additional acronyms and paperwork have been developed to 'keep everyone right'.

"These discussions help clarify our understanding of sometimes woolly terminology in a document. We talk in plain language and we aren't afraid to ask 'What does that actually mean?'"

Two valuable aspects of Deputes Together, particularly for new members, says Ms Nicholson, are the one-day guided tour from Learning and Teaching Scotland and the forum facilitators. "These are people who monitor the different discussions and will often go away and find answers to questions that keep coming up, or point us to relevant material in the cybrary."

Deputes Together is likely to succeed, as Heads Together has done, for one simple reason, says Phil Galbraith. "If I ask you as a depute head what was the best part of a conference or in-service day, you'll tell me it was lunchtime or coffee break, when you got a chance to talk to your colleagues about the job. But the trouble is, you could only do that four or five times a year.

"With Deputes Together you can now do it any time you like."

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