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College return is just the ticket

Not enough teachers are taking advantage of the exciting research and study opportunities on offer at universities, reports Jill Parkin

Professional development is a beloved buzz phrase, but it's hard to find in the day-to-day world of teacher shortages, tight purse strings and heavy admin load.

Every year universities advertise study breaks: several weeks for secondary teachers to have access to the latest in their discipline; first-rate libraries and other resources; and a little time away from the classroom to think. It's a fair deal - in return they hope for enhanced sixth-form applications.

It has to be a good thing, but in fact universities are having to work very hard to fill their places. They have the funds, but very few takers.

Dr David Smith of Selwyn College, Cambridge, says: "We've overhauled our scheme quite radically this year in a bid to appeal to as many teachers in as wide a range of institutions as possible. We used to offer just two study breaks - called Bye-Fellowships - taken for roughly the length of a term. But increasingly we found that it is now so difficult for teachers to be released during term time that we only got small numbers of applicants. So this year we devised a new scheme which we have called Study Time in Cambridge.

"Our aim is to be as flexible as possible, and we are currently offering the chance for up to four teachers to come to our college for between two and four weeks.

"There are many ways of spending the time: work towards a book or article, reading or research, contacts with faculty members and students in areas of interest to a candidate, andor a chance to find out more about some aspect of Cambridge, such as admissions.

"We greatly value having teachers in college. The conversations help keep us aware of developments in schools and colleges.

"Keeping in touch with the teachers after they have spent time here is invaluable in extending our contacts within the teaching profession, and helping us t give the best advice to teachers and students about applying to Cambridge."

At University College London, the Fawcett Fellowship in geography has been similarly undersubscribed, even though it includes funds for teaching cover.

Those who make it to UCL have a term there - ideally the first long term of the school year - to update themselves and explore developments in their subject. Lectures and libraries are equally open to them.

Clive Thornton, from Hautlieu School in Jersey, used his time at UCL to produce a school course on hazardous environments, which had the side-effect of improving his IT skills, thanks to UCL training. "Most of all," he says, "it gave me the luxury of time to reflect, to work at a pace that is not punctuated by bells or breaks, and to feel that I am not constantly having to catch up with myself."

Graham Seel, who teaches history at Manchester Grammar School, found his time at Selwyn astonishingly productive. He applied for a Bye-Fellowship in 1996, having been commissioned by Cambridge University Press to write a textbook on English History 1603-1660. He had the active support of his school.

"The most exciting part of my stay at Selwyn came from mixing with the fellows there and at other colleges. It was incredibly useful to talk to leading experts about the material I was researching.

"This experience has undoubtedly enhanced the quality of advice I am able to offer to those of my students who are considering applying to Cambridge.

"I returned to the chalkface invigorated, refreshed and eager to unleash my newly formed insights onto my students."

Professional development was one of the topics in last year's Green Paper called 'Teachers: meeting the challenge of change'. The Department for Education and Employment said last month that schools should be able to use some of the increased LEA education standard spending on professional development. More detailed news on ways and means is expected in September.

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