A widely-held misconception of beacon schools is that they spend their entire government grant of around pound;35,000 a year on their own staff and facilities. In fact around a fifth is spent on partner schools, a new study by the National Foundation for Educational Research reveals.
Most of the money retained by beacons is spent on training and staff visits to other schools. "For comparatively little, teachers have practical staff development; they see how others work in a real situation. We are providing quality training for schools at minimal cost," was a typical comment from the beacon headteachers.
The NFER study looked at just under 250 of the country's 575 beacons. Almost two-thirds of the schools covered by the report only collaborate with other schools. The others also work with local education authorities and teacher-training institutions. The average number of partnerships for one beacon school is around 15. More than three-quarters of beacons reported that they were making new links and 81 per cent said they had developed existing ones.
An average of 12 staff in each school are involved in the scheme, a slight increase since the last survey in 1999. There is some evidence that responsibility for this work is filtering down the school hierarchy, even to classroom assistants. More than a quarter (26 per cent) are now involved, compared with 8 per cent two years ago.
Teachers in beacon schools said they preferred face-to-face contact - school visits and meetings - to using the Internet to keep in touch with partner schools. But contact was typically each month or term, not weekly or daily.
The report says that the scheme has helped to raise standards in partner schools. Staff in four primaries working with a secondary cited improvements in pupil and staff information communications technology skills, ICT teaching, national curriculum test scores and primary-secondary transfer.
One benefit was summed up by a teacher: "There's no substitute for seeing people dealing with children and the curriculum."
Others said the initiative gave them breathing space and the opportunity to create systems and draft policies.
The chance to work with different schools and organisations was a bonus - suburban teachers gained insights into inner-city schools and special school staff experienced mainstream practices. Beacon status also raised teacher and pupil morale, and the school's profile.
However, one school decided not to continue with its beacon activities because of the toll on staff, even though it found it a "positive experience".
The report concludes that there is no "best practice" model and recommends that, before applying for the scheme, schools should make sure they know their strengths. They must be able to transfer their skills, partner institutions must act on the information and ideas received, and evaluation must continue.
More report details available at: www.nfer.ac.uksummarysfb.htm