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Let off steam in the hot seat

Heads can now vent their frustrations on policy-makers with the help of virtual forums. Phil Revell reports

HOW many times have you wished for half an hour with the politicians and policy-makers to put your point of view?

"You can respond to a consultation, but you don't get any sense of impact," says Graham Silverthorne, head of the Netherhall school in Cambridge. But now there is a way of relieving that frustration - the "hot-seat". This a forum for heads to put policy-makers on the spot and the National College for School Leadership is opening the door to allow more heads to participate.

"Hot seats" will be a familiar concept to anyone who has taken one of the NCSL's National Professional Qualification for Headship courses over the past two years. Virtual Heads is the online support system for NPQH and hot-seat debates are one of its more unusual elements. Anybody logged on can see the debate and post a question or response. Hot seats are also a feature of Talking Heads, the NCSL's online community for newly-appointed headteachers.

Virtual Heads staged the first hot-seat debate in March 2000 when Professor Michael Barber answered questions on middle-years schooling. Next in line was Professor Tim Brighouse who said hot seats could be "a radical and effective means of keeping policy in touch with the reality of teaching".

Since then there have been 71 others, including David Normington, permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills, and Mike Tomlinson, chief inspector of schools. "It isn't about a one-to-one conversation," says Tony Richardson, NCSL's director of online learning. "It's about a conversation with a community."

The national college says that a third of the 10,000 heads registered with their online communities are regular browsers, with another third logging on occasionally.

Last term there was a debate about the Government's White Paper. The hot seat was occupied by Jon Coles, the DFES official leading the department's work on the current education Bill. Mr Coles was in the hot seat for three weeks and thousands of heads followed the debate. There were questions about private-sector involvement in education, faith schools, 14-19 reform, the gender debate, and teacher workload.

The debates are private but Mr Coles is believed to have been given a rough ride in his first week in the hot seat, with heads queuing up to fire questions about the White Paper. However, after that baptism of fire, he enjoyed the experience. "Most of the questions came overnight," he said. "I would log on in the morning - it was something to look forward to. It was a different experience to have this kind of dialogue with people."

The college is, however, keen to emphasise that Talking Heads is not just about hot seats, and Cambridge's Graham Silverthorne supports that. "It's quite a versatile tool - there are a number of online communities, each with their own focus, and a social room to let off steam."

Future hot seat occupants will include Peter Shaw (director general for youth policy) and David Hargreaves (newly-retired chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) on the 14-19 Green Paper; Chris Gale (chair of the National Governors Association) on shared leadership; and David Hart from the DFES on the laptops for teachers scheme. The college is also trying to arrange for the incoming chief inspector of schools, David Bell, to take a turn.

Jon Coles carried on email contact with some of the hot-seat contributors after his three-week stint. "It has potential," he says. "It gives an opportunity for an extended dialogue. I don't think it's a substitute for other methods of communication - its strength is that people can explore issues in depth."

Heads interested in joining the NCSL online communities should register at www.ncsl.org.uk

phil.revell@ukonline.co.uk

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