A term in the sun;Career development

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
Colin Butler can't recommend sabbaticals too highly.

Hooray, an initiative that every teacher can support. I mean, of course, the sabbatical term for training or research (TES, September 3). The Government wants teachers to keep up to date; teachers want to do just that, but never have the time. Now the Government is making time available. I'm for it.

In fact, I had a term off a few years ago. The then Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge, asked me if I wanted to spend a summer term with them, so I said yes please. There were no requirements. In return for turning up, I was given a suite of rooms overlooking the Cam, full dining rights and time to do exactly what I wanted. Terrific! It got me away from a load of chores, and the work I did then is still paying off in top-rate A-level coursework.

I call that a good thing. Teaching can be an exhausting and narrow profession, so the opportunity to step back, re-order priorities and think without constant harassment is manna from heaven. So, are there any down-sides?

Well, the Government is bound to dicker about funding. My leave-of-absence was paid for in-house, but I was lucky, and I can't see that happening everywhere. That means a lot of teachers could be out of the frame simply because their school doesn't have the money. That can't be right. The money should be centrally provided, and it must be new money. The trade-off for the Government would be better teachers and a more attractive profession; so, in Blunkett-speak, it wouldn't be something for nothing.

Finding the right kind of cover could be a real snag. Good teachers can never be spared - and their extra responsibilities need to be covered too. I doubt that pupils want to see their best teachers disappear in the run-up to examinations; and school planning requires key personnel such as heads of departments about the place when decisions have to be taken. These are not insuperable problems - people are always on the move, or off sick or on maternity leave. But if sabbaticals are not to die the death of a thousand difficulties, they have to be planned for.

Part of the answer is to know in advance who is going to be out when, so that other staff can be trained to assume vacated responsibilities. If teacher X is running coursework, teacher Y should know how to grade it. If departmental business is at stake, then a colleague can be briefed to take over. Planned absences don't have to be an unqualified nuisance; a little foresight, some timely in-service training, and other people's careers can be helped, too.

But a word of warning. We all know that an uncomprehending public moans about our summer holidays - though the carpers can never explain why so many teachers count the years to retirement. So a term off is bound to generate snears about loafing on the beaches of Bali at the taxpayer's expense.

So the Government must define sabbaticals as an entitlement, not as something to be applied for on a competitive basis. Most teachers will make good use of time off once a decade or so; and I'm happy to see trust, not prescription, in this area of professional life. With the self-sacrifice good teaching requires, you have to say that a term in the sun just relearning life skills is time well spent.

Colin Butler is senior English master with responsibility for INSET at Borden grammar school, Sittingbourne, Kent.

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