If you work at Dartford Grammar School you can do a taught MA in education at the school's expense and on the school premises, irrespective of age, seniority or status. The MA programme, taught and accredited by the University of Greenwich, is the cornerstone of the school's staff development policy.
The take-up is substantial: 11 people began in September 1994 and 11 more last year; more than a third of Dartford's 53 teachers. And already there are six more signed up to start this coming September. Mike Conn, the deputy head who manages the MA initiative, is confident there will be more.
A far cry from the days when just one or two staff might successfully negotiate with school or the authority for MA funding at any one time. Others did - and do - MAs at their own expense and in their own time, though there were only 16,000 education MAs under way throughout England and Wales in December 1994 at a time when there were more than 390,000 teachers.
The DartfordGreenwich scheme works on the points system: 120 are needed for an MA with a maximum of 60 available for Accredited Prior Experiential Learning (APEL). That means providing detailed written evidence of any relevant policies, procedures, innovation, courses, you have been involved in during the preceding five years. APEL is certainly no soft option, as Cheryl Wulff, deputy head of English and a second year MA student explains: "To get the full 60 points your APEL documentation has to be 20-35,000 words. It's an enormous hurdle but it's the route most of us have chosen, none the less."
The rest consists of weekly twilight sessions, taught on a modular basis by three visiting Greenwich staff. "Much easier than travelling to a university or college elsewhere. It fits in with family life much more easily," says David Morgan, head of maths and a first year MA student. There are also reading lists and research projects and dissertations.
A condition of enrolling on Dartford's MA programme is that all research work has to be linked to the school's development plan. This is part of the spin-off benefit for the school - and, crucially for the education of its 900 or so pupils. A continuous stream of research is beginning to flow: deputy head of technology, Martin Pentecost's investigation into teaching and learning within international enrichment week and Cheryl Wulff's work on differentiation in the English curriculum at key stage 3, for example.
Bill Goddard, "pathway leader" at Greenwich's School of Education, is the chief link and visits Dartford at least once a week. "Theoretical underpinning," he argues, "helps teachers to practise their trade better. " There may be something in this since Dartford is one of only 30 schools in the country to have been named by OFSTED as "outstandingly successful".
The head, Anthony Smith, leads by example; he enrolled with the first MA cohort and deputy head Hudson Stubbs began this year. Mike Conn, whose MA in education (Goldsmiths) was already completed before he took up his Dartford appointment in 1993, is investigating the possibility of doing a taught doctorate through Greenwich.
Anthony Smith says: "We see the school as a learning community at all levels and the MA is a key part of that." He doesn't mean just teachers either. Russell Spooner, 23, is an old Dartfordian. Not yet a graduate - but expert in IT - he is employed by the school as open learning manager. Having a wife and child to support makes a conventional full-time university course impractical. Russell is scheduled to begin a Greenwich BSc, supported by his employer, this autumn.
The school is also enabling graduate science technician Angela Jobber to study for an MSc. Careers adviser Gordon Collins is in his second year of the MA programme and the school is looking at NVQ qualifications for staff who don't want to commit themselves to degrees.
The rapport with Greenwich - and the use of school rather than university premises and resources - means that the courses can be offered to the school at very competitive rates.
Some tired-looking staff hinted that they felt they had been pressed into embarking on the MA programme. One or two have refused absolutely to have anything to do with it. Mike Conn cheerfully admits to "a bit of enthusiastic encouragement" but says that people sometimes need pushing. "You can't rely totally on self-motivation," he says. "Like their pupils, teachers don't always know what they're capable of."
The other side of the coin is that the school is able to use its in-house MA programme as an attractive recruitment incentive. Although there is a three-year service requirement on young, inexperienced teachers, they can be helped to build up their APEL portfolio during the preparatory period so that they are ready to start in earnest when the time comes.