Ken Henton, head of Westhaven, a special school in Weston-super-Mare is one of many enthusiastic converts to the Avon Investors in Schools staff development project, a joint collaboration between the education authority and the local training and enterprise council, WESTEC. "It's helped us to work together as a staff and evaluate what we are doing - and to identify what we need to do next. The school is developing in a much more coherent way," he says.
The project gives nearly 100 Avon schools a blueprint for improvement through staff development; instead of sending teachers off on a haphazard range of courses, training is aimed to help schools directly to fulfill their aims and raise the performance of pupils. The Avon scheme is based on Investors in People (IIP), a framework for improving and recognising organisational performance which has been widely used in business and industry, and on well-established theories of evaluating staff development devised by A C Hamblin. But unlike other models drawn from the commercial world, this one has been carefully tailored to meet the needs of schools: it incorporates the criteria OFSTED uses in school inspections and results are measured by the benefits to pupils.
With support from trained managers, schools define their "vision", their performance targets. Training is then specifically geared to help staff achieve these goals. Every stage is evaluated and successful schools are awarded the IIP Standard by an independent assessor.
For Westhaven, a school for children with moderate learning difficulties which had been under threat of closure for a year, improvement in staff morale and job satisfaction have been two of the main benefits of the project.
"Every person in the school now feels valued, whatever their role," says Ken Henton. The re-writing of job descriptions has helped staff to see how they contribute - and it has led to the much closer involvement of classroom assistants and midday supervisors in forming and carrying out school policies.
One of Westhaven's main targets was to improve pupils' behaviour. Lunchtime was a flashpoint; midday supervisors felt they had no authority to discipline children - by 1pm there was often a long queue of pupils outside the head's door waiting to be "seen". Effective training for the supervisors has changed the situation. They are now in charge of appropriate rewards and sanctions for pupils and the number of names in the discipline book has shrunk.
To assess the effectiveness of its policies, the school is also about to launch a longitudinal study of past pupils, to assess whether they are involved in FE and how well they are adjusting to adult life.
Longwell Green primary in Bristol has found the motivation of classroom ancillaries has increased enormously since it joined the project. "We hadn't fully exploited their potential before," says Andy Leggatt, the head. "Now they can see what we're trying to achieve." The school's main goal is to improve children's reading and ancillaries have now received special training in phonics and techniques like structured questioning.
"They can now see they're making a valuable contribution and that it isn't just teachers who have an impact," says Andy Leggatt. The benefits for Longwell Green's pupils will be measured by standardised tests and by children's use of the library.
The main changes for Worle School, an 11 to 16 comprehensive in Weston, have been in management methods and in improved communication. David Roberts, the head, says the project highlighted the importance of good middle management and teamwork. The school became so convinced of the need to offer effective support to staff that it appointed a director of personnel. Another priority is ensuring that all sections of the school contribute to whole-school policies.
"Everyone now has a coherent idea of what the school is and where it is going," he says. It has received nearly Pounds 10,000 over four years to fund training, and the head and personnel director have both received five days' intensive training.
One of the project's advantages is its universal appeal. It can improve successful schools like over-subscribed Worle, as well as the "failing" schools which are usually the ones targeted for improvement.
The only criticism is of the framework's sometimes inaccessible language: "Some of it is apparently written in Martian," commented one head.
And an unexpected downside for Worle was the loss of a promising geography teacher, who announced during an appraisal meeting that the project had prepared her for greater responsibility. She left the next term to become head of department at another school.
Further information from the development managers, Gillian Baxter and Maryl Chambers, at Advice and Development Centre, Sheridan Road, Horsfield, Bristol BS7 OPU.