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Specialist advice virtually on tap

Teachers in East Ayrshire are piloting a website that gives access to professional development in management when they want it, writes Eleanor Caldwell

Forward planning, chairing meetings, delegating work and striking an effective work-life balance are all topics of personal and professional development, but help is not always on hand when it is most needed. For 25 nominated teachers in East Ayrshire, however, support is available online.

The group of probationers, post-probationers and more experienced teachers is trying out, an online knowledge bank designed to offer suggestions, solutions and support to professionals in any sector.

Good Practice, an Edinburgh-based online publisher, is a registered provider for continuing professional development and its clients include councils, NHS Trusts and ambulance services as well as retail and other commercial businesses, so it uses generic, non-educational language. Its resources were already being used by some departments in East Ayrshire Council and this led to the education department's six-month trial at a cost of just more than pound;4,000.

John McCarney, the head of schools support, is enthusiastic about the trial. "Our interest is in using as a tool to encourage teachers to develop their management and pedagogical skills. It is not about using information and communications technology as a means in itself but as a means to an end," he says.

The management know-how site that the East Ayrshire teachers can access includes information on 10 key management topics and breaks these down into key elements. A teacher who is concerned about his of her effectiveness as a communicator, for example, might access a diagnostic test for a self-evaluation of communication skills before exploring sections to learn more and obtain tips.

Teachers in the trial group can download any material on the website for use in their own schools. A senior manager might, for example, download a document on leading effective meetings for distribution to principal teachers or other promoted staff.

The teachers are enthusiastic about the site. Fiona Normansell, an experienced teacher of French and German at Cumnock Academy, says: "I'm at the point now when I'm being asked to chair meetings and give presentations. It's not always easy to ask people for advice in the course of the day, so this would be a good way of doing it myself."

She also sees the site as offering a layer of support for working towards chartered teacher status.

The teachers see themselves particularly making use of the site's forum facility and perhaps developing forums for specific teacher groups such as probationers. For the time being, the East Ayrshire teachers welcome the chance to chat to peers within a controlled space. Allan McDougall, a post-probationer music teacher at Cumnock Academy, is looking forward to being able to consult others about issues and questions already thrown up in second year teaching.

Skane Dodds, principal teacher of physics at Auchinleck Academy, is pleased to have a forum to share ideas on departmental issues. He also sees the site giving him an increased sense of direction on his path towards the Scottish Qualification for Headship and the next stage of his career.

East Ayrshire intends the site to be used by teachers at all levels and sees the forum as the key to its success.

Quality improvement officer Jean Nisbet says she has used it herself to gain good ideas for communicating effectively with probationers and language assistants. A teacher can discover new ways of approaching a basic issue and then use the forum as a platform for bouncing further ideas off others.

The site does not yet contain any education or subject specific material, but it is hoped that this will develop over the trial period, as the Good Practice team adds to the content on the recommendation of teachers.

Their use of the site will be monitored by Good Practice and reported to East Ayrshire. Ms Nisbet says she will be in touch with the teachers too to get more personal views. The trial will be thoroughly evaluated before East Ayrshire makes any decision about adopting permanently.

"We will have to evaluate this mode of support against other online communities such as Learning and Teaching Scotland's Heads Together and Masterclass," says John McCarney, "to identify if it is worthwhile."

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