It's not often you hear teachers praise a government initiative, let alone one that calls for extra out-of-hours effort, piles on the pressure for results and reports, and involves paperwork galore.
But for staff at St John's Roman Catholic comprehensive in Gravesend, Kent, the Department for Education's little-noticed best practice research scholarships (BPRS) have been a welcome aid to their efforts to take more control over their own work.
The idea of the scholarships - giving teachers money to carry out classroom-based research - arose in draft policy on continuous professional development a few years ago. It was given little fanfare from the DfEE and received scant attention elsewhere.
But, last September, pound;3 million was quietly handed out in bursaries of between pound;2,500 and pound;3,000 to 1,000 teachers across the country so they could explore ways of developing their own practice. Eight of the 11 teachers at St John's who applied for a BPRS received nearly pound;20,000 between them for a variety of projects that will add to their own skills and the school's overall development.
"Not much has been said about this scheme - it seems to be very low key," says deputy head Gary Holden. "And yet it is a wonderful opportunity for school development, encouraging school-based research and giving it status. Someone from central government is saying, 'We believe that practitioner research is a good thing and we are going to put our money where our mouth is and support it'. That's great."
It was only two years ago, he says, that the former chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, said teachers should not engage in "knowledge creation"; their job was merely to transmit it. "Yet here's the Government, which so often seems to block teachers' initiatives, supporting them and putting the capacity in their hands to make decisions," says Mr Holden.
That sense of surprise at such an open-handed government programme is reflected throughout the school. But it is not surprising that so many teachers from St John's were successful bidders, for the school has been promoting classroom research - or what Mr Holden calls "teacher-led development work" - for some time.
Over the past six years, 16 of St John's 60 staff have undertaken school-based research projects under a scheme co-ordinated by the Centre for Education and Leadership Improvement at Canterbury Christ Church University College, for which they will eventually receive an advanced level diploma, an MA, or PhD.
Such "research" might focus on how to create a new scheme of work for key stage 3 science, for example, or look at ways of motivating reluctant students at key stage 4. As well as traditional book-based research, the teachers might interview pupils and their parents, visit another school, attend conferences, try new methods in class, or devise ways of evaluating lessons.
Colynne Hicks, head of Year 8, took a year off to do an MA. She's now working towards a PhD on why Year 8 and 9 boys are excluded from school more often than other age groups, and is using the government bursary to buy time from her A-level and GCSE English and drama teaching schedule to interview parents and to visit agencies.
"This is a more relevant way to do research," she says. "It focuses more directly on teaching and learning, and dovetails into my work. It's wonderful to have such direct funding. Teachers are so used to being told they can't do this, they can't do that - this is very affirming."
For Sheila Connolly, the school chaplain, receiving a bursary for her work on a teachers spiritual handbook was "quite inspirational".
That feeling is shared by German teacher Gillian Smith, who's looking at ways to increase interest in foreign languages among Year 8 pupils. "It shows that the Government has realised, at long last, that teachers have something to say," she says.
Ms Smith has been trying to increase the children's motivation by getting them to make cultural connections and has spent some of her grant buying pop CDs, teenage magazines and videos, as well as setting up email links with a school in Germany. "Having the bursary is a good motivator for me too," she says. "It makes me stick at it because I know I am going to have to write it all up."
All the bursary winners at St John's would be pursuing their particular projects anyway, but the DfEE money has given them an added sense of satisfaction and reassurance that their work is valued. It also eases some of the huge time burden which an MA or diploma adds to an already overcrowded timetable.
"A lot of the frustration teachers feel about workload and the prescriptive aspects of the curriculum is because they don't have time to stop and think," says Mr Holden. "A scheme like this enables that space to be created."
That's certainly true for Elise Marlow, the school's special needs co-ordinator, who is looking at new strategies to keep Year 10 and 11 pupils in mainstream education. "The scholarship has given me time to sit down and talk to the children about alternatives to school, such as college or work experience," she says. "And it means I can interview parents because the school can pay for my cover."
Not that the money comes entirely without strings. Bidding teachers must specify their budget and itemise costs in advance, and certain things, such as computers, are not eligible. The bursaries are also tied to the financial year - not particularly useful for people like Ms Marlow who will need it most in the summer term when more of her children are on work experience. Individuals have to apply separately to keep their funds open until August.
The scholarships also put the teachers under extra pressure. Each recipient is accountable to the DfEE for what they spend and for what they produce. And they have to write a report on their project by the end of December. "It's certainly a sort of moral pressure to force you to get on with it," says one.
But it all helps Gary Holden in role as a school manager, and not just by easing a few financial burdens. "It all gels into the performance management framework," he says. "I am passionate in my belief that performance management should be teacher-led, rather than a way of checking on people's performances. This is a way of demonstrating that we believe that the people driving change are teachers, that they are the people who will have the most impact on raising standards."
How it works
This year the Government has again made up to pound;3 million available for best practice research scholarships. Guidance notes and application forms are on the internet at www.dfee.gov.ukbprs. The website also includes summaries of completed reports, discussion groups and bulletin boards.
The bursaries are open to individual teachers - including supply teachers and heads - from all levels. About 1,000 were awarded in September 2000 and it is expected that a similar number will be made this year, again for between pound;2,500 and pound;3,000.
Seventy per cent of funding must be spent on tutor or mentor support and supply cover costs, the rest on travel, software, childcare, subscriptions, books, photocopying, and so on.
Scholarships for 20012 will be awarded in September and this time the money will be available for the full school year.