Last spring, Nadia Rice took 10 days out of school to fly to the United States and research a new approach to teaching autistic children. Ms Rice, teacher in charge of the special learning difficulties unit at a primary school in Aberystwyth, is now ready to start training colleagues and parents in the techniques. "I have had the best training you can get from the people who developed the system," she says. "The confidence in being trained and seeing the system work in an American school has enabled me to enthuse my staff."
Her trip was made possible by a programme of professional development research scholarships for teachers that has been introduced throughout Wales. The pound;5 million pilot project, funded by the National Assembly and run by the General Teaching Council for Wales (GTCW), has proved more popular than expected. Since it began in September 2001, more than 6,000 teachers have applied, out of 32,000 who are eligible.
It is open to all teachers or heads who have worked 20 days in a maintained school in the previous year. Bursaries include the cost of supply cover, and range from pound;500 for an activity and visits or exchanges, to pound;1,500 for international visits, and up to pound;5,000 for a six-week sabbatical. Projects involving a network of schools are eligible for pound;10,000, while pound;30,000 is available for whole-school initiatives.
Ms Rice's pound;1,500 bursary has helped her school, Ysgol Llwyn yr Eos, become the first in Wales to use "developmental individual relationship-based intervention" (DIR) to teach autistic children. Ms Rice visited Washington DC for a training course and conference, and a school in New Jersey to see DIR in use. "I wanted to know, 'Is there independent evidence that this method is effective and sustainable?' I also wanted to receive quality training, to see the theory in action and to put Wales in general, and my school in particular, on the DIR map."
But hers is a cautionary tale - while grateful for the professional development benefits the visit to the US has brought her, she says that having to pay upfront for her trip and "not reading the small print" left her out of pocket.
"When I had information about this grant that was going around all the schools in Wales, I thought it was an amazing opportunity. So I applied and was awarded pound;1,500. I realised it wouldn't cover the costs, but it was so important that I was prepared to subsidise it. Unfortunately, I wasn't aware of how it worked. You pay everything up front, then you keep all your receipts and are reimbursed. But pound;1,100 went to the school to meet the cost of 10 days' supply cover, which left me pound;400 to cover the rest of my costs."
Mike Turner, head of German at St Julian's school in Newport, received a pound;5,000 grant to allow him to take a five-week sabbatical in Frankfurt researching the use of ICT in language teaching; pound;3,350 was spent on supply cover. "As regards the finances, the designers of the scheme had either not intended people to go abroad, or had not thought it through," he says. "After travel expenses, my budget ran out at the end of the third week and I have covered the rest myself."
Mr Turner says, though, that the situation is made clear in the documentation sent to teachers. And the project has been worthwhile. "The scheme is outstanding. I have long been aware, no doubt with a million others, that teachers burn out ever more frequently. The opportunity to recharge the batteries cannot be over-valued, and if that involves some cost, then that's how it is."
An independent evaluation of these projects concluded that they had "an extremely positive impact" on the teacher and school effectiveness, and helped raise standards.
But the report also raised concerns over costs; some small primary schools said waiting for reimbursement placed an unnecessary financial burden on teachers. And a few teachers suggested that heads had controlled access to the funding and directed what activities teachers should undertake.
In response, the GTCW has brought in an interim payment scheme to help spread the cost of expensive items. "We aim to cover all the costs," says Tegryn Jones, the council's policy and planning officer. "Many teachers have spent their bursary purely on supply cover. That gives them time to be released from their normal duties. It's more appropriate that teachers have a set budget and the power to decide how they spend it."
That freedom has been used in an astonishing number of ways. Physics teacher Chris Cheffings from Llangollen won a pound;3,000 bursary to do research at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. Marilyn Rowlett of Gaer primary in Newport used a pound;3,000 scholarship to study best practice in teaching handwriting.
Others gained research funds for smaller projects. Jilly O'Brien, a geography teacher from Ysgol Aberconwy, used her pound;500 grant to spend three days with the charity Fairtrade, which encourages fairness in trading relations with developing countries.
The GTCW estimates it would cost pound;20 million a year to make the scheme an entitlement for Welsh teachers, and has urged the National Assembly's education and lifelong learning committee to fund it after the pilot ends next March. "The sum - a fraction of the overall schools budget - would unlock a massive wave of professional development for teachers in Wales, enabling them to deliver a consistently improving service to pupils," it says.
For further information go to www. gtcw.org.uk