Scaling the heights of the classroom

Mary Carmichael

Why are most superteachers heads of department, asks Mary Carmichael.

Was this the purpose of the AST scheme?

A new breed of teacher is multiplying in staffrooms around the country. So far there are about 100, but there could be 5,000 by the year 2001. Identified by their outstanding classroom skills, these are the superteachers.

The Advanced Skills Teacher (AST) scheme was started last year - and is planned to go nationwide in September 2000 - "to provide a career path for the best teachers who wish to remain in the classroom rather than become headteachers or deputy headteachers".

To become one of the new elite, teachers must show evidence of exceptional classroom management, discipline, subject knowledge and pupil performance. Once appointed, they can expect to spend up to one day a week as a mentor to staff, advising on classroom organisation and teaching methods, doing outreach work in other schools and preparing teaching materials.

Westminster Education Consultants assess all applicants through interviews and classroom observation. The applicant's headteacher is also interviewed, as are pupils and parents.

Under the pilot, a school receives a pound;5,000 grant to set up the scheme, as well as pound;500 per month to top up the teacher's salary (although incentive points may be deducted) and pound;500 to cover supply costs for the teacher's outreach work, for two years. The employer selects a five-point range from the 27-point pay scale, which starts at pound;25,200 and rises to pound;40,200. Pay increases within this range are determined by performance. None of them has yet been placed at the top of the scale.

Maureen Cruickshank is principal of Beauchamp College in Oadby, Leicestershire, which has appointed six such teachers (three funded by the government, three by the school); another four have been accredited. The level of experience and expertise required deters most junior members of staff from applying, she says. On average, a superteacher has 15 years of teaching experience.

So far, most have been heads of department, but that was before there was any route to promotion other than the managerial ladder. However, the DFEE says that once appointed, ASTs should not have management responsibilities over and above those of classroom teachers.

Most participating schools have followed this guideline and, like John Evans, head of Tudor Grange School in Solihull, believe that "it is not appropriate" for a superteacher to continue to run a department. (His school now has acting heads of department.) These schools have welcomed the opportunity to offer career development and financial benefits to more staff and have redistributed department responsibilities and salary incentive points. Mrs Cruikshank says that at Beauchamp College, this has increased the staffroom feel-good factor.

In other schools, ASTs have remained as department heads, with the consequent administrative and managerial tasks taking up to 20 per cent of their timetable. This is sometimes because of overlapping responsibilities. Two ASTs at St Aidan's CE High School in Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire, have stayed as directors of maths and English because their new responsibilities - for numeracy and literacy - are similar to those of their subject head roles. The Rev Alan Leeson, their headteacher, says that the ASTs' bureaucratic burdens have not increased: "They are still first and foremost classroom teachers par excellence."

Relieving a superteacher of departmental responsibilities may not be practical. One of two ASTs at Lynn Grove GM High School in Gorleston-on-Sea, Norfolk, is still head of music, "at the present time", because he is the only full-time music teacher in the school.

This flexible approach towards the superteachers scheme is not confined to individual schools. Newham education action zone in east London will soon be advertising 44 such posts, including 15 for a central pool, despite the original intention that superteachers were to be based in their own school. Trevor Matthews, an assistant director of education in Newham, says that the bid is within the spirit of the scheme as each pool teacher will be assigned to a school for up to a year. Neighbouring Waltham Forest is considering a similar set-up.

The future funding of the scheme has yet to be finalised, although it seems that it will come under the local management of schools funding mechanism. Employment contracts reflect this uncertainty. Most are modified deputy head contracts.

Critics have warned that the scheme is divisive, will create staffroom resentment, will take teachers not only from the classroom but also from the school, and will further reduce the number of suitable candidates for headship. In Australia, where a similar scheme has been operating since the early Nineties, a survey of teachers - 170 of them ASTs - found that promotion had brought increased stress and decreased job satisfaction.

Participating school and ASTs, however, are full of praise for the scheme and insist that they have not met with resentment. "Good teachers have specific skills which are transferable and, until now, there was no opportunity for others to benefit," says one head.

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Mary Carmichael

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