One of the highlights of Paul Page's 26-year teaching career has been meeting the Queen at a Buckingham Palace event to recognise the achievement of excellent teachers. Her Majesty confided in him that she loved history at school but struggled with maths, and commented after hearing he'd been to a famous waxworks earlier that he'd "met her twice today". She also expressed her admiration for teachers such as Paul who retain their enthusiasm for teaching throughout long careers.
Paul Page firmly believes that becoming an advanced skills teacher (AST) has helped him to retain his infectious desire to teach and inspire: "I didn't want to go into senior management as my first love is the classroom. I wanted to be able to influence teaching and learning and develop my ideas beyond the role of the head of department without losing contact with children. Teaching is a real vocation and becoming an AST saved me from stagnating. The new challenge has been an inspiration."
The concept of the advanced skills teacher was developed to provide excellent teachers with an alternative career path to that of the senior management team. Many superb classroom practitioners found that promotion invariably meant they lost much of the reason they were in education in the first place - teaching. ASTs spend 80 per cent of their time in the classroom and 20 per cent on outreach.
Paul had been head of history at Perryfields high school in Oldbury, West Midlands, through a difficult Ofsted inspection and the subsequent special measures. He played a key part in the development of Perryfields into a highly successful school which came out of special measures quickly and has continued to go from strength to strength.
The second Ofsted noted that "The example of excellence in the teaching of history should be used more directly as a model for all teachers to follow". In response to this, Paul was invited by the governors to become an AST. He then had to complete a detailed form which requires evidence of excellent results, subject knowledge, ability to plan, ability to teach, assess and evaluate, and the ability to advise and support other teachers. All to an "excellent" standard.
Once a candidate and his or her headteacher have completed the form, an assessor visits the school for an intensive day of assessment. The assessor watches the candidate teach, speaks to the head, parents, pupils and colleagues and checks a portfolio of evidence. This includes external examination results with value-added analysis and lesson observation pro formas. If candidates haven't passed, they can be reassessed at a later day if additional evidence can be provided.
The job is a varied one. Paul has worked in many schools across his local education authority and in many subject areas. He has observed and supported individual colleagues from his own and other schools, has led whole-school initiatives on assessment and has supported new heads of department when formulating action plans.
"Your first priority as an advanced skills teacher is to win their confidence - I'm not HMI, I'm not a 'spy', I'm on your side and I'll help you to develop," he says. "When you first arrive, people want to know 'Why are you here? Is there a hidden agenda?' There never is."
Paul feels that this is one area where the AST fills a gap in professional development: "The use of teacher's talents and experiences is something education didn't do particularly well before the AST programme. After all, teachers supporting teachers is the best Inset [training] you can get. We've been there; we know what it's like."
Paul became an AST after years as an outstanding teacher and an inspirational HoD, but he believes that experience isn't essential. "The key is to be a good classroom practitioner, have innovative ideas and be experimental. You can focus on your own particular strengths - mine are teaching and learning - but others have mentoring, management, formative assessment and accelerated learning talents. Becoming an AST is ideal for anyone who regards teaching as a vocation and wants to stay in the classroom while still developing professionally."
Taking on an AST benefits the school enormously. Alan Heyworth is an assistant head and is Paul's line manager at Perryfields. He is "considerate and understanding" and allows Paul to be flexible in using his allocated time in a way that they feel is most profitable, whether this is with an individual, a department or developing systems for the whole school.
The school also benefits from new ideas and good practice gleaned from other schools and termly meetings with the authority's other ASTs.
"A major part of my role is reassurance." says Paul. "Colleagues lacking in confidence need to be told 'You are not a bad teacher' and, with support and guidance, they can become the inspirational educator they want to be."