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Getting better by the second

Anat Arkin looks at the value of a good secondment.

There can't be many primary school deputy heads who can say they have handled a budget of pound;750,000, made presentations to government officials, or organised a conference for 18 primary and secondary schools. Catherine Gordondid all these things - and much more - while on secondment to the Salford and Trafford education action zone last year.

Originally seconded from St Alphonsus RC primary school in Manchester for just three months to write part of the zone's action plan, Ms Gordon agreed to stay on for a further four months. She took charge of an pound;80,000 bid for early years education and, because of her maths background, acted as the zone's financial manager, producing reports and accounting for zone expenditure. She then took on a marketing role, drumming up support from business.

Now back at St Alphonsus, where she has worked for seven years, the past four as deputy head, Ms Gordon says she is "buzzing" with ideas and feels ready for a headship. "The experience of being out of the classroom and working with a budget of pound;750,000, 18 schools and external agencies has taught me a massive amount," she says.

By chance, two other St Alphonsus teachers are also developing management skills as zone co-ordinators for literacy and ICT. A third teacher, based at another school, is the zone's numeracy co-ordinator.

Jo Jolliffe, director of the Salford and Trafford EAZ, says these teachers are getting involved in recruitment and selection of new staff, in planning classroom assistant training and in developing whole-zone strategy - "which is great for us and for them".

Several other zones are releasing classroom teachers to spread good practice across their schools, often by working alongside other staff in an advisory role. This arrangement gives seconded teachers the chance to develop their own careers without putting their permanent jobs at risk.

"Because zones were set up for three years in the first instance, with no guarantee of life beyond that, a secondment is much the safest way for staff to work in a zone," says Derek Wise, head of Cramlington high school in Northumberland, who recently completed a year as director of the Newcastle education achievement zone.

Attracted to this secondment because he wanted to broaden his own professional development after ine years as a head, Mr Wise says working with a cluster of primary, middle and secondary schools has increased his understanding of the importance of early years and primary education.

Apart from appointing its first project director and his successor on secondments, the Newcastle EAZ has taken a science consultant on a two-year secondment, while a primary project manager has been seconded from the local education authority.

Effectively acting as advanced skills teachers, staff seconded to advisory jobs in action zones usually get some extra responsibility points on top of their salaries. Few of the first wave of 25 zones or the further 41 announced last November have shown much enthusiasm for appointing ASTs, while only one of the new zones, Southend, is piloting the Government's performance management scheme, a term ahead of the rest of England.

Concerns that the presence of ASTs could prove divisive mean that even zones that had planned to appoint "super-teachers", have had trouble attracting suitable applicants. The Newham EAZ in east London, for example, had intended to create up to 12 posts at the new grade, but after receiving only three applications, ended up appointing two.

But zones are investing heavily in staff development - and it isn't only full-time teachers who are benefiting. Thetford EAZ in Norfolk, for example, plans to offer 10 days' training for up to 20 supply teachers. Designed to bring them up to speed with the literacy and numeracy strategies, ICT and other developments, the programme is also intended to encourage supply teachers to consider applying to zone schools for long-term contracts or permanent jobs.

Among its other initiatives, Thetford is seconding a maths specialist to work in the zone's two high schools as a temporary member of their senior management teams. It is also running joint training sessions for middle managers from these two schools.

Pointing out that in recent years teachers have had few opportunities to share ideas with colleagues from other schools, zone director Graham Sigley says: "After LMS came in, the culture was about schools being in competition with each other. What we've been able to do through the zone - and it's particularly strong with primary schools but increasingly so with the high schools - is to show that there is benefit in partnership."

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