THE BIGGEST teaching unions are offering grants to members to carry out research in the classroom.
The unions aim to encourage practical research that can lead to improved teaching and learning techniques, arguing that much academic research has little impact on schools' day-to-day work. The move also reflects their increasing desire to help members with career development.
The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers is providing grants of up to pound;3,000 to individual teacher-researchers and up to pound;5,000 to groups carrying out collaborative research.
The teacher-researchers will be supported by an NASUWT team with research experience, and a network of academics who will act as mentors.
Patrick Roach, one of the union's principal officers, says: "We would like to see research reflecting on specific classroom practice.
"In the past, so few studies have focused on the benefits of changes in classroom practice and school management.
The union's suggested research topics do indeed reflect the day-to-day reality of schools. They include planning and teaching the literacy and numeracy hours in primary schools, and the extended school day that the Government is advocating.
The NASUWT says that the scheme will help classroom teachers to influence policy, and make research more relevant and accessible to teachers.
Meanwhile, the National Union of Teachers is offering scholarships of around pound;3,000 to groups of teachers who want to conduct research into effective strategies for developing children's thinking skills. Participants will receive two days' training, including work on evaluation and reporting skills. Academics at the University of Newcastle's School of Education will also give support.
John Bangs, one of the NUT's assistant secretaries, said: "Those awarded scholarships will have an opportunity to shape and influence the project to suit the teaching context in which they work.
"The focus on thinking skills is a wonderful opportunity for teachers to get out of the straitjacket of the national curricuum and exercise their own professional judgment."
Initially, the scholarships will only be open to teachers from the North-east, but the union is bidding for funding from the Department for Education and Employment to expand the project.
Topics for future research schemes could include pupil behaviour and information and communications technology.
Patrick Roach of the NASUWT says academic research is seen as politically-orientated and not aimed at improving teachers' expertise.
Another problem, he says, is that research findings hardly ever seem to reach teachers, perhaps because of the way they are disseminated.
Research findings generated by the NASUWT scheme will be published on a new website, which the union hopes will develop into an international forum for exchanging information.
The NUT acknowledges that its scheme is also part of its drive for professional development, an increasingly urgent priority for all the teaching unions.
The Government's Green Paper, Modernising the Teaching Profession, has given a kick-start to the transformation of the unions, says Mr Bangs.
Following the lead of their counterparts in France and the United States, they are beginning to focus on training and career development. Advice on salaries and legal problems is no longer enough
Gwen Evans, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, agrees. She says: "The introduction of appraisal and performance management means that we see our role much more as one of supporting professional development."
The ATL is one of the unions which jointly fund, with the English Speaking Union, the Walter Hines Page Scholarship for a two-week study tour in the US. Last year's ATL recipient compared the role of classroom assistants in the US and the UK.
The ATL also uses grassroots research by its members in its policy documents, such as its recent "Jills of All Trades" paper on classroom assistants.
Further information on research grants NASUWT - Patrick Roach, tel. 0121 453 6150 or e-mail: email@example.com. The NASUWT also welcomes good research ideas from non-members. NUT - Northern Region Office, tel. 0191 389 0999.