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Learn to love sitting in the hot seat

RECENTLY, I have spent time in the "hot seat". You may be forgiven for thinking that this is an occupational hazard. But my experience was pleasurable.

It involved debating direct with Talking Heads, an online community of newly-appointed headteachers established by the National College for School Leadership.

The idea is to give heads the option to talk directly to the key people in policy design and implementation, with a number of debates or "hot seats" with Department for Education and Employment officials and other national and international


Future occupants will include Michael Fullan, the Canadian education guru and Vicki Phillips, the inspirational American school reformer. The community is a prototype of the kind of activities that the college will run when it is launched in the autumn.

The debate was initiated by posting an article I'd written on the website and inviting responses. Over the ensuing three weeks, the site was visited 600 times. Primary, secondary and special school heads put varied and thoughtful questions and suggestions.

Part of the debate centred on the transition from key stage 2 to key stage 3, which produced a number of radical ideas. One head suggested that secondary teachers could work in primaries during the summer term, thus enabling them to gauge the capabilities of Year 6 children and alleviate the problem of teachers having low expectations of children in their first year of secondary school. It could do away with the need to test pupils in the first month of secondary school and ensure that the last few weeks of the summer term were used productively.

Another idea came from the head of a special school who wanted such schools to be seen as centres of excellence in the process of transfer, providing support for pupils needing extra help to cope with a larger school r threatened by social exclusion.

Why can't junior pupils access resources at secondaries earlier in their development, asked one head. Indeed, this should now be possible without moving pupils.

Some primary heads drew attention to the disparity of funding per pupil between Year 6 and Year 7. This has lessened in recent years, but remains wide. Evidence suggests that Year 6 teachers deliver the most pupil progress, despite poorer funding.

My attention was drawn to many successes around the country. Increasingly, schools are taking the initiative in the area of key stage 3 transition and are to be congratulated. We can all learn from them and we intend to do so through research we have commissioned from Jean Rudduck, John Gray and Maurice Galton.

The online learning community isn't the only place where innovative developments are taking place at key stage 23 transfer and in key stage 3.

In County Durham, there is a series of experiments to test improved transfer arrangements. And there are transition schools in the Sheffield education action zone. All over the country, secondary teachers are watching literacy hours and daily mathematics lessons in primaries and coming away from them in awe. The key stage 3 pilot in 17 LEAs starting from September can take advantage of this groundswell.

The online learning community is the thin end of the wedge. I'm sure it will become a standard means for policy-makers to learn from experienced practitioners and to gather and disseminate best practice. The National College for School Leadership will lead the way, but government as a whole will follow. As we move into an era of transformation, policy success will depend on the capacity to learn from the front line.

Michael Barber is head of the Department for Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit

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