Heads, log on here for a chat and advice

It is not only new headteachers or those in remote areas who can feel isolated. Raymond Ross reports on a project to share experience and ideas

Within two years every headteacher in Scotland will have the opportunity to join an online community called Heads Together. The aims of the Scottish Executive project, managed by Learning and Teaching Scotland, are to assist heads by providing them with a mechanism for mutual support, offering solutions to problems and the sharing and creation of new ideas, as well as reducing the isolation of headteachers in small or remote schools.

"It is not just for new or inexperienced headteachers looking for answers to problems," says Alistair Cairns, principal curriculum officer with LT Scotland. "It is a chance for experienced headteachers to offer support and provide answers, a chance to share good practice at a national level.

"If you consider that there are 3,000 headteachers in Scotland and multiply that number by the combined years they have served, it amounts to a huge fund of experience to draw upon and share."

Heads will be able to seek advice from one another andor exchange policies on matters from learning and teaching to positive behaviour or anti-bullying strategies.

The site will also be secure. "There will be no access for local authorities, HM inspectors or even depute or assistant heads. It is direct communication between heads with no third-party involvement," says Mr Cairns.

"However, there will be no anonymity. All participants will be identified and any articles posted will be accompanied by names and short biographies."

Biographies are important so that headteachers can note another's specialism or experience appropriate to their needs, pick up on that and contact them for more information or advice.

"Within five or 10 years, I believe Heads Together will be the headteacher's first port of call for advice and information," says Mr Cairns. "They can brainstorm, post articles or react to and discuss articles and they will be able to access the site 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year."

The site is already being piloted and by November at least 20 heads from every local authority in Scotland will have received their day's training in how to access and use the site. There are two facilitators available to give online or telephone support and to troubleshoot any problems.

"We've had two training sessions and another 15 are set up. Each headteacher needs one session. If you want to be part of the pilot, all you are asked to do is to log on at least three times a week," says Mr Cairns.

It is hoped that Heads Together will support the development of headteachers' management skills as well as increasing their information and communications technology skills and awareness of the potential role of ICT in management and administration.

"It will be particularly useful for headteachers who feel isolated," says Mr Cairns. "Isolation is not necessarily geographical; a headteacher may be isolated within his or her own school.

"I think it will be a real bonus for teaching heads who have less time and opportunity for continuing professional development. In fact, I believe that online communication is becoming an essential component of CPD."

A sister site to Heads Together is also being set up. Called Talking Heads, it will allow participation by invited specialists with whom headteachers can talk.

Each specialist will post a paper and will then be engaged in a debate online, when headteachers can raise whatever issues they feel are appropriate. The specialists will only have access to the website for a limited period in order to facilitate debate. When their contribution is complete, their access will be terminated.

The first specialist to post a paper (this month) is Stephen Heppell of Ultralab (East Anglia Polytechnic University) who set up the original English system on which Heads Together is based.

He will be followed in October by Jim Goodall, the head of the national priorities team at LT Scotland, and in November by Graham Donaldson, the new senior chief inspector of schools.

"This is a first for Scottish teaching," says Mr Cairns. "Headteachers will be getting direct access to these specialists and they will be setting the agenda."

He adds: "When Heads Together becomes more established we will have the potential to create sub-communities, for example for Highlands and Islands headteachers or headteachers of special needs schools.

"We are establishing a community that headteachers will want to take part in. We don't want it to be middle-of-the-road or antiseptic. We want it to be challenging, interesting and thought-provoking."

It is hoped that when the Scottish Executive Education Department funding runs out after two years a way will be found to make Heads Together permanent.

Kevin Thompson of Ultralab talks about Heads Together, 5.15pm, September 25; 12.15pm, September 26

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