The nearest most teachers get to continuing professional development is the odd in-service training day, particularly the cramming session on what's new in the curriculum that is squeezed in on the first day of term.
The chances of attending a meaningful course, doing research or observation, let alone sabbatical travel, are slim. Such things happen in industry and commerce, but in the staff room they are the stuff of dreams.
Professional development bursaries - a pilot scheme being run until March 2002 - are supposed to change all that. The question is whether they offer a real chance to put teaching on a par with other graduate careers or whether they are just another fraying sticking plaster on the profession's corpse.
Kate Griffin, the chair of Secondary Heads Association's professional and management committee and head of Greenford High in Middlesex, has no doubts about the value of professional development but believes that to be effective it needs to be part of a much bigger rethink about teachers' careers.
"We certainly believe in it. In fact, one of our teachers recently had a spell in Japan, which was great and absolutely the right thing to do.
"One of the problems, of course, is the dearth of good supply teachers, which means that you are doing a balancing act. On one hand you have the development needs of existing staff and the fact that offering professional development is good for staff retention and recruitment. On the other hand is the fact that your youngsters may have the teacher they know for only 70 or 80 per cent of the time," `Mrs Griffin says.
"We need a major rethink about teachers' progress from induction through to threshold and management responsibilities. It should be expected that at certain stages a teacher will do a course, a trip or a research project. If it were an accepted, expected, built-in part of the career, alongside an attractive salary structure, we could truly compete fo recruits with business and industry."
An improved salary structure would also have the effect of improving the supply pool.
The professional development bursaries on offer are less ambitious than Mrs Griffin would like to see. The grant is often expected to cover supply as well as development costs. One way to make the money go further that is especially favoured by heads is to pool bursaries and arrange in-house workshops, hiring speakers or experts to come to a school.
Last month, schools standards minister Estelle Morris announced a three-year pound;92 million professional development package which includes research sabbaticals for teachers in challenging schools and early professional development for those in their second and third year of teaching, as well as the bursaries of up to pound;700 for individual teachers. Ms Morris said 70,000 teachers could benefit from the funding and hoped that teachers using sabbatical grants would get the chance to study best practice in other countries.
Teachers would be well advised to get in fast. No decision has yet been taken about whether to extend the bursaries scheme beyond March 2002.
It covers nine local education authorities (bursaries of up to pound;500) and selected education action zones and Excellence in Cities areas (up to pound;700). These are Northumberland, Herefordshire, Rotherham, Sunderland, East Riding of Yorkshire, Leicester City, Croydon and Wokingham LEAs, North Southwark, New Addington, Ashington, Leicester, Hereford, Withernsea and Southern Holderness Rural Achievement and Sunderland Building our Future EAZs, plus Rotherham and Southwark EiCs.
The Department for Education and Employment says that suitable development includes conferences, training courses, classroom observation, coaching or mentoring, guest speakers and visiting schools. Bursaries can also be used for subsistence, travel and childcare.
Group 4's Professional Bursary Administration Service is administering the pilot. To find out if you are eligible call 0845 039 0208. Claim forms available from DFEE Publications, tel 0845 602 2260 or see www.dfee.gov.uk