Improving by degrees

Staff at one north London comprehensive school are going for self-improvem ent in a big way. This month, no fewer than 15 teachers at Hampstead School - plus five colleagues from nearby New End primary - are starting a two-year masters degree.

The MA in school development, to be run by the International School Effectiveness and Improvement Centre at the University of London's Institute of Education, is the first of its kind, breaking new ground for teachers wanting to improve both their academic attainment and their classroom performance.

The course will be school-based, taught mainly, at least in the first year, on the premises. Participants will work as a team, discussing their work and ways to approach course material.

The idea behind the project, thrashed out between the school and the institute, was to get away from the traditional MA which requires teachers to travel to their local university once or twice a week to learn more about educational theory and exchange ideas with colleagues from other schools. The institute, and the school, wanted to develop a course that linked theory directly to practice.

The institute was already in the process of reviewing all its MA courses, spurred on by the new drive to improve standards of teaching and learning. And the school was looking for ways to help staff put their extra study to best use. Hampstead School's deputy headteacher, Anne Barton, who helped set up the course, says: "We wanted it to be relevant to the needs and concerns of the school, as intellectually challenging and rigorous as possible, and flexible enough to fit around the school's other priorities and commitments. We knew at the outset that the area we were interested in was school development. Ultimately, we're after improvements in teaching and learning."

Despite its name, Hampstead School is a stone's throw from down-to-earth Cricklewood High Street, not in the leafy north London domain of TV producers and actors. It has a very mixed intake, with more than half of its 1,300 pupils speaking English as a second language. In a glowing Ofsted report last year, inspectors highlighted good teaching, consistently high standards of achievement and confident students; 53 per cent of those sitting GCSEs achieved five or more top grades last year, the highest for any mixed comprehensive in the borough of Camden. A #163;500, 000 grant under the technology schools scheme will mean vastly improved IT facilities next year.

PE teacher Heather Daulphin sees the MA as a chance to improve her teaching and her career prospects. "This was a fantastic opportunity which was also good for my professional development," she says. "I'm constantly trying to improve my lessons by deepening my knowledge. "

The first two terms of the course will involve 60 hours of taught sessions at the school, at residential weekends and on Saturdays, based on a "core module" and accounting for a third of the total number of credit points. It will focus on ways to improve teaching and learning. The second year will involve visits to the institute to seminars and lectures and completion of dissertations, based on research at the school.

Paddy Walsh, a member of the four-strong team from the institute, sees the project as part of a general move towards school-based teacher training. In a traditional MA lecture, he says, there are teachers from primary and secondary sectors, all from different schools, and with little shared experience. "I see this as a continuation of the school-based curriculum development tradition, " he says. "It's putting a very strong marker against school development as an aim, and it's also a a commitment to a particular kind of staff developmen t where they're not just dealing with day-to-day issues but with the constant rethinking of the school's philosophy."

Teachers signing up for the MA will pay only #163;800 each for the two years, as there will be several substantial subsidies: #163;15,000 from the two schools' training budgets, #163;12,000 from Camden council and #163;6,000 from the institute. A further #163;31,000, to make up the total bill for the two years of #163;80,000, is being sought through sponsorship.

The institute is aware of the danger that a school-based course could become too parochial and lacking in healthy academic scepticism. But, Dr Walsh points out, there are counterbalances. The students already have first degrees, so they are likely to be outward-looking. And the second part of the course will involve regular visits to the institute, where the course team will make sure a properly objective academic approach is maintained.

Hampstead School's headteacher, Tamsyn Imison, a member of the Institute of Education's board, is proud of her school's reputation, but wants the push for higher standards to continue. She sees the MA project as a way of raising the level of professional discussion in the staffroom and as confirmation of the "learning culture" central to school life at Hampstead.

"If you want continuing improvement in a school you have to have a learning culture," she says. "It sends a message to the children that we really care about learning, too. We want them to do as we do, not just as we say."

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