But how has it worked out? Many heads say ASTs have made a real difference.
ASTs themselves often talk of a "dream job", free from administrative duties, and well paid to teach well. And from 2006 the new excellent teachers scheme will offer another opportunity for committed professionals to boost their skills, status and salary, all in their own schools.
Money, money, money
The salaries bandied around sound impressive. In theory, an AST can earn up to pound;48,657 in the regions, rising to pound;54,747 in inner London.
Those figures compare favourably to the pay of a deputy head in a medium-sized secondary, earning around pound;43,000. There has even been talk of ASTs in shortage subjects, such as maths, earning up to pound;60,000. However, the Government's proposal for a minimum pound;40,000 salary for secondary maths and science ASTs has been rejected by the review body. It was feared that raising the cost of ASTs would discourage schools from appointing them. The Government has said it will return to the issue.
An AST's pay spine has 27 points, and on appointment a teacher is placed within a 5-point range on the scale, with the ability to move up within that range during their time in the post. The bottom rung carries a salary of Pounds 30,501, and the average pay for an AST is a little over pound;36,000.
Who can become an AST?
There are no restrictions on who can apply to be an AST. The majority are experienced teachers, often already working as heads of department. This is particularly true in secondary schools, where half of all ASTs have more than 20 years' teaching experience. There have also been cases of deputies and headteachers stepping back into the classroom as ASTs.
Some ASTs have been appointed after just three years in the profession, and almost a quarter are under the age of 30. Around 70 per cent of ASTs are female, a figure that is in line with the overall ratio of female to male teachers in the profession. But senior management posts have a higher male presence, suggesting that female teachers are either more attracted by, or find it easier to secure, the post of AST rather than senior manager.
How are AST posts funded?
Most commonly, through the standards fund. The budget for AST posts this year was pound;69 million, half of which is paid by the DfES and half by local authorities. Each job costs up to pound;15,000 a year to fund, covering the cost of salary increase and the provision of cover during outreach work. But some schools report that the grant can fall short of the amount needed to provide effective cover.
LEAs are encouraged to discuss the creation of posts with schools in their area, and then bid for the appropriate money. And since 2004, LEAs have been able to take money from their overall budgets and direct it to schools that wish to create AST posts. Schools can fund posts themselves, from existing staffing budgets or using specialist school funding or school improvement grants, though less than 3 per cent of posts have been funded this way. There are currently 4,500 ASTs, 60 per cent are in permanent posts, the remainder on fixed-term contracts.
Making the grade
Candidates for an AST post must first be assessed by an independent body.
Application forms ask candidates to explain ways in which they meet a range of "excellence criteria", and to include a portfolio of work. Assessors then spend a day observing lessons, interviewing pupils, and looking at teaching materials. While it may sound daunting, the success rate is high.
Since the scheme began, 92 per cent of applications to obtain AST status have been approved. Once approved, a candidate is eligible to be shortlisted for AST posts for the next five years. There are around 500 teachers in England who have passed the standard but are not currently employed as an AST.
Some LEAs have more than 100 ASTs, others have only a handful. In England, the greatest number of ASTs is in London and the South-east, while the North-east has the fewest.
What about Scotland and Wales?
There is no AST scheme in Scotland. The chartered teacher programme is the nearest equivalent, but it is actually more similar to the excellent teacher grade proposed for England and Wales. Only teachers at the top of the main pay scale are eligible, but more than 2,000 teachers are currently working towards chartered status. The situation in Wales is unusual. In theory, the AST scheme operates in the same way as it does in England. In practice, there are no ASTs working in Wales, because no posts have been created. "There has been no appetite for ASTs in Wales, and therefore we have not promoted the scheme," says a spokesperson for the Welsh Assembly.
ASTs are expected to spend around 20 per cent of their time on outreach, working to spread good practice. This usually means visiting other schools in the area, but it can also include "in-reach", time spent working with departmental colleagues in the AST's own school. In schools that are in special measures, ASTs are not required to do any outside work.
Outreach covers a wide range of roles: observing and appraising other teachers, mentoring NQTs, producing high-quality teaching materials, advising other schools on available resources and training, participating in initial teacher training, and helping teachers who are experiencing difficulties. If the post is funded by the LEA then it will probably determine where it would like the AST to do outreach, and there may be a focus on schools that are having problems. But there are often opportunities to work further afield, at other LEAs across the country.
Many regard outreach as one of the most interesting parts of the job.
"Seeing other schools is always fascinating," says Nigel Bailey, an AST at St Mary's CE primary in Barnsley. "If you're sent to a school that's having difficulties it can be a negative experience if you're working with people who are dispirited or don't want to change. But when schools get in touch with you, and say 'we'd like you to help', then you know it's going to be a rewarding experience."
In demand or in decline?
There is currently some confusion over the future of the AST scheme. The Government's five year plan for education, published last July, stated clearly that ASTs were envisaged as a key component of the teaching workforce. In a recent newsletter, the DfES talks of wanting the number of ASTs to grow to 15,000, around 4 per cent of the workforce. However, the DfES says these numbers are not "target figures", and with the AST budget for next year more or less the same as for this year, it is hard to see how numbers will expand.
From 2006, the way funding is distributed is set to change, with a DfES spokesperson admitting that "we just don't know yet exactly how it will work." The likely outcome is that money for AST posts will come from a larger lump of funding, in which case the growth of the scheme will depend very much on the resolve of individual schools and LEAs. There is even concern that if funding is withdrawn, or reduced, then many ASTs could face a pay cut and loss of status.
What about the excellent teacher scheme?
The excellent teacher scheme (ETS) will be introduced in September 2006.
Teachers who reach the top of the upper pay scale (UPS) will be eligible to be assessed against a set of "excellence criteria", very similar to those that ASTs have to meet. As with the advanced skills scheme, schools will be able to create excellent teacher posts, which will carry salaries of pound;35,000, rising to pound;41,745 in inner London, at September 2005 rates.
The DfES is keen to point out that the excellent teacher grade is intended to complement not replace that of AST. Indeed, there are two crucial differences between the schemes. The first is that excellent teacher status will not commit the teacher to doing any outreach work. They will be based in their own school throughout the week, though they will be expected to mentor and develop staff within their own school. The second is that teachers will only be able to apply for excellent teacher status after they have been at UPS 3 for at least two years, whereas teachers can apply for AST status at any stage of their career. Last month's report by the School Teachers' Review Body also suggested that while excellent teachers will have to show outstanding classroom skills, they won't need the same level of subject specialism as is expected of an AST.
Two schemes are better than one?
Possibly. In theory, a large department could have a head of department, an AST and an excellent teacher, all filling slightly different roles. But there are some fears that when the excellent teacher scheme is introduced, the AST scheme may become marginalised. More than 20,000 teachers are expected to be eligible for excellent teacher status, and while the accompanying salary will be less than the top pay for ASTs, it will certainly compare to the average AST salary of pound;36,000.
Because there is no outreach involved, creating an excellent teacher, rather than AST, post will do away with the inconvenience of cover arrangements, and mean the school has its star teacher all to itself.
Some heads are happy to share their teaching talent: "We see collaboration with other schools as a very important part of what we do," says Ros Gulson, headteacher at Walton girls' high school. But not all schools are so altruistic. "One of the things that has held the AST scheme back," claims Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), "is that there are inevitable constraints to collaboration. The Government encourages schools to work together through schemes such as AST, yet encourages them to compete against each other through league tables and funding bids." Chris Keates, National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) general secretary, agrees. "The outreach function of ASTs has been a disincentive to schools," she says. "The excellent teacher grade will prove more attractive to both schools and teachers."
ASTs and the career ladder
One of the main objectives of the AST scheme was to offer ambitious teachers an alternative to a move into senior management. Indeed, 1 per cent of ASTs are headteachers who have stepped 'down' to take up a teaching role again. But there are concerns that narrowing the salary gap between classroom teachers and senior management could lead to a shortage of heads and deputies.
"Of course, it's a good thing that excellent teachers are able to stay in the classroom and be well rewarded for it," says Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. "But the majority of school leaders are drawn from the teaching pool, and the pay rewards of a leadership post are not now as attractive to them."
Many ASTs say their love of classroom teaching is such that they would never have considered going into senior management in any case. Others, particularly those at primary level, see the AST role as a stepping stone to a senior management post, not an alternative to it. "I felt that after fewer than four years in teaching I wasn't experienced enough to become a deputy," says Nigel Bailey. "Whereas becoming an AST was a realistic career jump, which has given me management experience and prepared me for another possible promotion."
Dream job or workload nightmare?
DfES guidelines state that newly appointed ASTs should give up any administrative duties they already hold, in order to concentrate fully on quality teaching and outreach. But in many cases ASTs continue to hold positions of responsibility, such as head of department.
Sometimes this happens because a teacher has been appointed to the role of AST on a fixed contract of just one to two years, and is reluctant to give up other responsibilities, for fear of perhaps not getting them back when the contract ends. In other cases, it's because there is no one else to do the job. "I was head of a department of two, and the other teacher was an NQT, so I had no choice but to continue," says Patrick Allen, an AST and head of the music department at Ifield community college in West Sussex.
"It does mean I have to monitor my workload very carefully."
Training the trainers
A 2003 Ofsted report on ASTs was overwhelmingly positive. It found they had "significantly improved the quality of teaching and learning" in more than three quarters of the schools inspected. The report stated that well over three quarters of all training sessions led by ASTs were "good or very good".
But there is a feeling that ASTs could have even more impact if they were given greater training in how to appraise and coach colleagues. Research published last year by the Centre for British Teachers found that 70 per cent of ASTs felt they had not received sufficient training related to their role in developing other teachers. Another gripe was that too few people knew about the work of ASTs and what the role involved. Some reported going into neighbouring schools to do outreach, and being greeted by bemusement, suspicion or even hostility. While ASTs enjoyed their role in offering support to other teachers, they were keen not to be seen as an undercover arm of Ofsted. "Your big advantage as an AST," says Patrick Allen, "is that you are still a teacher, not an LEA adviser or an inspector. Other teachers respect you more, because they know that you are walking the talk every day of the week in your own classroom."
The road to Damascus
When ASTs first appeared they were dubbed "superteachers" by the media. The term often carried a cynical, slightly mocking quality. But the tag seemed altogether less ridiculous after last year's teaching awards, where despite representing just 1 per cent of the profession, ASTs carried off three national and nine regional awards.
Perhaps the biggest testament to the success of ASTs has been the change in attitude of the teaching unions. When the idea was first mooted in the late nineties they were up in arms about what they saw as a divisive form of performance-related pay. But the achievements of ASTs have brought about a volte-face. "Initial hostility has given way to an acceptance that their role is important," says Mary Bousted.
Headteachers, many of whom were concerned that bigger salaries for some teachers could split the staff room, say resentment has rarely been a problem. Ros Gulson says: "Outstanding teachers command the respect of their colleagues. When I see an AST giving a model lesson, and they're in full flow, it really does look as though it's their raison d'etre."
* Information and application forms are available at www.teachernet.gov.ukprofessionaldevelopmentast
* Ofsted's two reports into the work of ASTs can be downloaded at www.ofsted.gov.uk. Go to 'publications' and enter 'advanced skills teachers' into the search
* The CfBT's report, The Work of Advanced Skills Teachers, by Chris Taylor and Sue Jennings, can be downloaded from www.cfbt.comresearchprojectsTeacherSkillsReport.pdf
Photographs: Digital Vision Additional research: Sarah Jenkins
Did you know?
* There are 4,500 ASTs in England, almost 1 per cent of the workforce.
There are none in Wales
* ASTs can earn up to pound;55,000 but their average salary is only Pounds 36,000
* Almost a quarter are under the age of 30
* pound;69 million has been set aside this year to finance the scheme, but funding arrangements for the future are uncertain
* 70 per cent of ASTs feel they have not received enough training in their role to develop other teachers
* The new excellent teacher scheme (ETS) is intended to complement, not replace, ASTs. It has the potential to involve 20,000 teachers from September 2006, earning pound;35,000-pound;41,745