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Case study: Beauchamp college, Leicester

When the advanced skills teacher (AST) initiative was launched, my predecessor grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Within a few months Beauchamp was gaining national recognition for having more ASTs than any other school in the country. To date, 18 staff have acquired AST status, of whom 14 are still at Beauchamp.

One reason for this number is that we are a large college, with over 150 teaching and more than 100 associate staff. More importantly, ASTs are firmly part of the established culture at Beauchamp: becoming an AST is a statement of intent, not an aggressive display of status. The staff are generous and confident enough to know that many more could become ASTs if they wanted to, but they are likely to be involved in one of the other schemes at the college. The organisation has leading edge, training school and international school status and is a designated recommending body for initial teacher training.

The diversity of these initiatives enables us to be bold in how we use ASTs. They do outreach with our local family of schools and provide bespoke training in our capacity as a regional training centre for the specialist schools trust. They deliver workshops to the 20 or so PGCE students who train with us every year, as well as fronting workshops for the 16 members of staff currently studying for our in-house MSc programme. Partner schools benefit enormously from the expertise of our ASTs, but they are not about preaching words of incontrovertible wisdom to suspicious and underwhelmed colleagues. They are much more concerned with recognising quality when they see it and fostering a culture of shared experience and pragmatism in order to improve practice.

It is in their role as mentors to new teachers that we have realised the extent and quality of the contribution ASTs can make. In the three years we have been involved in the graduate training programme, we have been astonished at the number of talented people, from a wide range of backgrounds, who have decided to enter the profession. They in turn have learned so much from working with teachers who have proved that they are very good at what they do and are equally convinced that they still have a lot to learn. The brilliance of this is the degree to which the learning is reciprocated. If you really want to question whether you are creating great learning experiences for your students, just get a highly-intelligent aspiring teacher to look carefully at what you are doing and then ask lots of demanding questions.

We are aware that the funding for ASTs is tenuous and may cease at short notice. However, we continue to look at our current cohort and see how we can best use their talents now and in the future. The maintenance and deployment of ASTs is no longer about whether we can finance them; they are so much a part of the culture we cannot afford to lose them. We don't actually like the term AST now, preferring to see them fine-tuning their role as consultant or chartered teachers, professionals who have learnt their trade and are committed to delivering high quality training.

Beauchamp is developing rapidly as a full service extended school: we already have 5,000 students on site (the youngest is three months old and the oldest is 83). We are determined to deliver training to the widest possible audience and ASTs are closely involved in helping us achieve this.

We have begun to explore the concept of flexible contracts. Three of our ASTs are spending part of their week teaching, part of it training teachers and part of it setting up courses. These are for a variety of outreach projects ranging from county-wide revision courses for A-level students to multimedia training for returners to teaching and a taster course for those considering the profession.

Having initially been sceptical about identifying and rewarding supposedly gifted and experienced teachers, not least because of the potential fallout from overlooked staff who considered themselves at least (and probably more) talented, I am now wholly converted. Our ASTs will play a pivotal role in what we are intending to do in the mid to long term. I love the flexibility the scheme gives us to innovate and take risks. It's like buying a car with a CD multi-changer, rear screen wipers and heated seats.

Before you had them you saw such diversions as unnecessary luxuries. Having experienced the difference they can make, you cannot imagine how you ever survived without them.

Richard Parker is principal of Beauchamp college, Oadby, Leicester

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