Feeling the winter blues? Fed up seeing the same grey faces in the staffroom? Here's your chance to get a new life, or at least spruce up the old one. Why not discard the resolutions to give up chocolate biscuits or clean out the garage and plump instead for something that could make a real difference to you and your school. Whether you fancy an exchange down under, a chance to don an Oxbridge gown or an insight into industry, somewhere out there is a scheme for you. But where?

What's new?

In some ways, nothing much. The first article in Friday magazine's The Issue series, in spring 2002, was a round-up of sabbatical opportunities - everything from scholarships and exchanges to career breaks and research grants. At the time, there was hope that the confusing hotchpotch of funds and funders would be sorted into a more organised, centrally administered series of schemes so teachers would know where to go for all the information they needed. A pipe dream? It seems so. While there are still plenty of opportunities, including many new ones, you still have to trawl through the small ads and keep your ears to the ground. To make matters worse, some government schemes have recently come to an end: Department for Education and Skills-funded research sabbaticals for those with long service at "challenging" schools and "best practice research scholarships", for example, are no more.

Unions are pressing for improvements to teachers' entitlement to time out of the classroom. "We have proposed that, one term in every seven years, teachers be allowed to research their own practice with a mentor," says John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers. "And we want to see the Government, through local education authorities, funding scholarships that will include work overseas." These ideas are still at the lobbying stage. But look on the bright side: even if it takes a bit of work to find the scheme you want, everyone who has given it a go will say it's worth putting in time and effort for the chance of a lifetime.

Exchange as good as a rest?

A teacher exchange is a straightforward job swap. You step into someone else's shoes, and they step into yours. The trick is to make sure you're the same shoe size. Finding an appropriate exchange partner means thinking about everything from term dates to exchange rates. If you end up teaching a radically different syllabus, you may spend weekends cramming your subject instead of seeing the sights. Fortunately, there are several organisations to act as matchmaker and help with the practical details. But if you think you can swap your one-bedroom terrace for a sprawling Californian villa with its own pool, think again. The criteria for exchanges are geared towards making a seamless swap rather than bagging an exotic holiday, and it's usually about benefits for your school as much as topping up your tan. "There's not only the advantage of having an overseas visitor in school to give an international flavour," says Christine Miller, head of programmes at the League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers.

"It's an opportunity to bring together best practice from many countries."

Making a difference

The challenge of teaching classes of up to 120 children with few resources and a long walk home to a local shack is something a lot of teachers think about - then dismiss. But your teaching skills are nowhere more valuable, or valued, than in the developing world. Voluntary Service Overseas recently introduced one-year placements for primary teachers, and its new education managers programme, aimed at headteachers, also offers one-year opportunities. These shorter placements should ease negotiations on a sabbatical arrangement, so you can return to your old job after a spell abroad. Some teachers have even negotiated leave of absence for standard two-year placements. "The governors saw the potential benefits and were keen to support me," says Rachel Harvey, who took a two-year break from Camelsdale first school in West Sussex, to work in Ghana. "When I got back, I had developed as a person and as a teacher."

If this level of commitment sounds daunting, there may be other ways to teach abroad. The Global Teachers scheme, for example, run by Link Community Development, offers five-week placements in Uganda or South Africa. The Global Schools partnership scheme, funded by the Department for International Development, offers 50 "reciprocal visit grants" each year, giving schools pound;1,650 to set up visits or a brief exchange.

Just give me a break!

God only had to work six days for his first sabbatical; you'll probably have to put in at least 10 years. The word "sabbatical" refersto anything connected with the sabbath, or day of rest. It was in the 1800s that the word took on its more secular meaning of a period of leave earned by long service. Sadly, the days when sabbaticals offered a complete break from the day job have largely disappeared; most grants nowadays come with work-related strings attached. But there is a glorious exception. The Goldsmiths' Company's mid-career refreshment grant is specifically for projects with no obvious link to the classroom. "Originality, combined with passion and determination to pursue a long-harboured ambition, are the keys to getting a grant," says Goldsmiths'. Last year it gave money to teachers to study Maori culture in New Zealand, lead a string quartet in Sweden and trace a grandparent's footsteps across Kansas.

The Goldsmiths' grants are to reward long service and to recharge the batteries for the final push to retirement. Some independent schools offer similar opportunities. At Eton college, for example, teachers are given a full paid term on sabbatical after 10 years. "Our sabbaticals are free and open. Teachers can propose anything they like, but the key is refreshment," says headmaster Tony Little. "Teaching is a wonderful life but it can become remorseless."

Doing the business

Placements in business and industry are popular with teachers who hanker after a taste of the outside world. "It's a chance to lift your head above the parapet and test yourself against the best," says Richard Harkness, head of Ercall Wood technology college in Telford, who had a year's secondment to the Department of Transport and Industry's future and innovation unit. Heads, Teachers and Industry (HTI) organises around 50 business placements a year, lasting between six weeks and 12 months.

"Businesses often need specific skills for short-term projects," says programme director Estelle Lucas. "Teachers make wonderful people managers; they have a unique insight into education and young people and represent a cost-effective option." So the business gets a specialist consultant at a reasonable price, but what does the secondee gain? For Mr Harkness it was promotion to his current post halfway through the placement, and now the chance of another step up the ladder as an LEA director. "Even three years later, I put a lot of it down to what I learned on secondment. The personal benefits are tremendous."

Jolly good fellowships

Ever struggled to find the book you want, or somewhere quiet to work? Then swapping the mayhem of the school corridor for the cloistered calm of an Oxbridge quadrangle may give you the facilities and breathing space you need. With an emphasis on personal academic research, Oxford and Cambridge schoolteacher fellowships typically come with no teaching responsibilities, just accommodation, food and a free run of the libraries. "I was treated the same as any other fellow," says Richard Yeomanson, deputy head of King Alfred's school in Highbridge, Somerset, who spent nine weeks at Corpus Christi college, Cambridge. "I had an outstanding suite of rooms, a set of keys, full dining rights and access to the wine cellar. It was very comfortable; I put on a lot of weight."

But it's not all grouse and claret. The fellowships are intended for those who teach the 16-18 age group, and the idea is to break down preconceptions and encourage applications from the maintained sector. "I worked hard meeting admissions tutors from other colleges, and looking into the issue of access and widening participation," says Mr Yeomanson.

Most colleges offer some kind of placement, but there's no centralised process for applying. If it's something you fancy, it's worth ringing round admissions offices. The scheme isn't widely known and some colleges struggle to fill places.

Ask and it shall be given?

Although UK teachers still lack a coherent, centralised scheme, it's possible to make your own ideas work. "The only difficult part is the funding," says Max Bullough, headteacher at Hayling school in Hampshire, which runs its own scheme offering staff four weeks' leave on half pay, funded from the salary budget. "We rely on the goodwill of the whole staff to help cover lessons." And at Pennington CE school in Cumbria, headteacher Jenni Boothman has set up a programme of secondments at local businesses - like Year 10 work experience, but for teachers. "It's up to staff to find their own placement, and it's the school's job to cover their absence. It's not difficult; we've never had a business turn us down."

And remember, if there's something you really want to do, there's nothing to stop you approaching your head and asking for unpaid leave. Indeed, in Northern Ireland, the careers break scheme allows teachers to apply for up to three years' unpaid leave, with their job kept open for their return.

But wherever you teach, if you give the school enough warning and make a convincing case for professional benefits, you might be pleasantly surprised.

Did you know?

* All teachers in Northern Ireland are entitled to a 'career break' - unpaid leave of between one and three years

* VSO recently introduced one-year placements as well as the usual two years, to encourage more schools to grant sabbaticals

* Teachers at Eton college can take a one-term sabbatical on full pay after 10 years of service at the school

* Recent recipients of Goldsmiths' mid-career refreshment grants have followed a gold-rush trail across the Yukon, led a string quartet in Sweden, and studied Maori culture in New Zealand

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