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Making a difference

Nicholas Pyke looks at the key role of advanced skills teachers

It is now five years since the advanced skills teacher (AST) was introduced to the school system - a role created to recognise and reward classroom expertise. For the first time teachers could be given significant extra responsibility without leaving the classroom for a management post - the traditional route to promotion. The past two years have seen a sudden growth in the numbers taking part. In January 2002 there were fewer than 1,000 ASTs in post. Now there are about 3,500. This total includes the first 69 ASTs in citizenship - a subject that's still building a national body of expertise and, it might be said, needs this sort of initiative more than most.

ASTs, of course, are charged with the task of spreading their knowledge beyond their classroom walls and into the school as a whole. They are also asked to work with teachers from other schools in their local education authority, getting time off to do so. The idea is that they spend four-fifths of their time teaching in the usual way and the remainder on outreach, helping to provide materials and advice. Many work closely with the local education authority advisory service. Not surprisingly this tends to work out as four days in school and one day out and about, trying to encourage teachers in a variety of terrains, some of them hostile.

The new ASTs in citizenship face all manner of uncertainty on their travels, from schools trying to fine-tune assessment criteria, to those where the subject has absolutely no backing from the heads and deputies.

In most cases the cost of covering for the outreach work is shared equally by the Government and the authority. However, ministers have been so keen to get the fledgling subject established on the timetable that all the costs for ASTs in citizenship are met centrally, for the moment at least.

There is no training for the qualification. But it does involve a tough selection process which requires candidates and their head teachers to provide written evidence showing that they meet the required standards.

They are then visited by an assessor who observes two lessons, talks to the head and other teachers, as well as the children and parents.

The overall results from the AST scheme seem to be positive. According to an Ofsted study, the teachers involved "possess well developed interpersonal skills, are very hard working and promote good standards of attainment in their home and outreach schools. They had a very positive impact on the quality of teaching and learning in over three-quarters of the schools in the survey."

If the scheme continues to go to plan, ASTs will, over time, represent between three and five per cent of the teaching workforce (about 10,000 teachers). It will, however, come at a price. From April 2004, responsibility for funding ASTs falls to schools and LEAs, taking into account the overall budgets available to them.

Further information:

* Catherine Fallon works at Eltham Hill Technology College for girls, in Greenwich, south-east London. She co-ordinates the subject across her own school and spends one day a week helping others in the borough. Working out how to assess the subject, she says, remains a headache for most of the teachers involved.

"A lot of schools have the problem that it's still being delivered by form tutors. There are 30 to 40 other different members of staff trying to teach something. They need help dealing with the senior management. They need help with resources. Working out the assessment is a big thing.

"I'm making quite a few links with local agencies in Greenwich - volunteer groups, councils, even school governors.

"Part of the AST role is to develop it across our school as well. It comes into the whole school curriculum and ethos. I'm working with every department. We've not gone down the short-course route. We don't want to 'fail' them if they don't get a GCSE.

"I love the autonomy the AST scheme has given me. I have been given the time to be able to make a difference."

* Gillian O'Sullivan is an AST at Fens Primary School, a 430-pupil school in Hartlepool with a mixed catchment. Even though the children are young, she tries to encourage as much active citizenship as possible. She gets one day a week off to help 30 other primary schools in the town. She has also found that schools need help assessing the subject.

"Getting through the AST selection process was really quite arduous, because I'm not very good at selling myself. I found all the form-filling was an ordeal, but the observation and the day itself went quite smoothly.

"Citizenship fits in very closely with the ethos of the school. We're an academic school, but the head accepts there's more to education than academic things.

"We teach it as a discrete subject, linked in with PSHE. I find it impossible to separate the two. Sometimes the children come up with answers you don't particularly like, but that's what democracy is about. They thought it was dreadful that a particular shop assistant near here stands outside smoking. They thought it was setting a bad example. It can be a bit like the Third Reich.

"An awful lot of primary schools had the citizenship ethos embedded into the culture as it was. It's partly a question of reaffirming that what they're doing is right. They don't always need to go down the route of buying expensive work books that mean ticking boxes.

"I like meeting other people from other walks of life through the AST work.

You can get very bogged down in school culture."

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