The National College for School Leadership has set up a network to tap the expertise of the best heads. Susannah Kirkman reports
The country's most influential heads are to get the chance to shape government education policies through a new network set up by the National College for School Leadership.
The network of 200 heads will advise ministers on education strategies and help to provide the support schools need to implement change.
Enabling heads to shape the future of education is a large part of the national college's remit. "We are not just providing training, but an opportunity for headteachers to advise the Government using their experience," said Heather du Quesnay, the college's director. "We want new policies to be rooted in reality."
Key issues for the head's network will be behaviour management, workforce reforms, boys' underachievement and the transition from primary to secondary. Network members will be linked to nine centres affiliated to the NCSL, enabling them to gather views and spearhead innovation across the country.
After a decade of government prescription, heads see the network as an exciting opportunity to lead change.
Joanne McLeod, head of Damers first school in Dorchester, thinks that it will mean a return of power.
She said: "We have had a lot of directed tasks thrust upon us and a lot of messages about how to teach. Now we seem to have reached a plateau with national assessment, we need to seek new ways of teaching and learning."
The network will enable heads to pool experience and ideas, one of the main activities at the fledgling network's recent conference in Nottingham. According to the NCSL, the ability to share best practice has been crippled by a competitive culture generated by league tables and local management of schools.
"We need to create structured ways for heads to lead change and share effective ideas," said Tony Richardson, director of online learning at the college. "People are fed up working in isolation and re-inventing the wheel."
Steve Sanderson, head of the St Joan of Arc Catholic primary in Bootle, agreed. "It enables us to sit down and think about long-term policies and to share the things we do successfully with other schools."
The network wants to recruit heads such as Mr Sanderson, who have a track record of successful leadership and innovation. Once a "failing" primary, St Joan of Arc is now a beacon school that has contributed ideas to an NCSL book, Schools In Challenging Circumstances.
The school already belongs to a local "networked learning community" of schools, one of 40 groups the NCSL has set up across the country to share best practice. Mr Sanderson believes the network provides a wide range of expertise, enabling ideas to be tested, disseminated and put into practice.
Sue Hyland, head of Haughton Kepier school in Sunderland, sees her role as linking local heads with the network.
She has also applied to be one of the heads who will act as mentors or consultants, supporting and inspiring colleagues who want to innovate. "I see it as part of my own professional development and asa chance to give something back,"Ms Hyland said.
Network members will also carry out research into new practice, hold workshops for the NCSL on innovation and speak at conferences and seminars.
The college will feed the heads' views to the Government and network members will join online "communities" where they can talk directly to ministers and officials who are designing new education policies.
This will allow a wider range of heads to take part than the current ad hoc system of consultation. The network's leaders will also feed ideas into NCSL training programmes. In return for their participation, members will be offered advanced training that helps them to look at their leadership style and its impact on their schools.
Headteacher associations are enthusiastic about the network, saying it will offer their members the chance to be at the cutting edge of leadership and educational change.
Both the Secondary Heads Association and the National Association for Head Teachers were involved in the planning and have nominated members to take part.
"It has the potential to be an extremely influential body," said SHA spokesman Terry Allcott. "We are very excited about it."
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