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Something for the weekend

Many trainers believe courses should be outside school hours and strictly not on the premises. Adi Bloom checked into a hotel

Biting her lower lip, Cress Senkus shuffles the cards. She lingers over one marked "Knows and understands the subject matter". As a quality for a good teacher, is it more or less important than "Treats both adults and children with respect and is respected by them"?

Ms Senkus teaches maths at Thomas Tallis school in Greenwich, south-east London. She and 140 of her teacher and learning assistant colleagues are ensconced in the business-class luxury of Sundridge Park, a full-scale conference centre on the outskirts of London. Over Friday and Saturday, they will reflect on their careers and how they can progress.

To isolate these qualities, participants have 20 cards, each highlighting a classroom attribute. They rank these in order of personal priority. The results vary, but consistent patterns do emerge.

Perhaps most surprising are those qualities that appear at the bottom of teachers' lists. For a group of people who have devoted half their weekend to a professional development seminar, it is ironic that "Takes responsibility for hisher own professional development" should be among their lowest priorities. The teachers explain their willingness to give up free time by saying they place great emphasis on the demands of the everyday timetable and the difficulty of reconciling it with training courses. Pupils, they say, will inevitably suffer if they miss classes or marking and preparation time in order to attend. Arranging cover lessons and catching up afterwards will only add to their workload.

For Kathryn Riley, professor at London's Institute of Education and facilitator for the event, there is a key difference between teaching and other professions. "My niece has just qualified as a doctor. As a newly qualified doctor, she feels that she has to go on training courses, otherwise how will she treat her patients well?" she says.

Expressing the contrasting teachers' view is Trish Dooley, assistant head at Thomas Tallis: "Putting professional development first is very difficult in a school like ours, where we have committed teachers whose primary focus is the children."

Over the course of the seminar, which Ms Dooley organised, she aims to encourage staff to question preconceptions about professional development.

She believes teachers who are willing to give up a Saturday for a course are unlikely to be entirely resistant to persuasion. As with the teachers, the non-teaching staff generally appreciate the opportunity to interact outside the everyday environment. "I was really nervous at first," says Lisa Sheaf, a learning support assistant. "I thought it would be a bit out of our league. But we're all included. It makes us feel valued. And I found out we all want the same thing."

But not all the staff are as accepting. Stuart Turpie, a history and geography teacher, is resentful of the infringement on his personal time.

"Saturday mornings tend to be sacrosanct in my household," he says. "So the jury's out as far as I'm concerned."

The two-day conference is part of the school's five annual inset days.

Staff are not paid for working at the weekend, but those unwilling or unable to attend are offered an alternative date during the summer holidays.

Trish Dooley says: "We suggested this a few years ago, and didn't get a very positive response. There's something very precious about your weekend.

But people have come round to it, because they realise that you don't have time in the week to have intellectual debate about the profession."

The seminar is also an opportunity for staff to spend extra-curricular time together. There are Friday evening group-bonding activities, including drama, yoga lessons and a talk by author Hari Kunzru. This, Ms Dooley says, enables staff to share ideas with colleagues outside their usual conversational sphere.

Once they have returned to school, they will reconvene to examine key issues raised during the event. Ms Dooley plans to pilot a series of follow-up programmes, including afternoon sessions with teachers from other schools. Eventually, she hopes that every staff meeting will begin with a brief re-examination of aims and ambitions.

"I don't know whether attitudes will change this weekend," she says. "But I wanted staff to have more space to share ideas and talk honestly. I hope they will take all the key issues of this weekend and see how we can move the school on."

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