AST stands for 'annoyingly short tenure'

12th September 2003 at 01:00
Secretly we believe that our true destiny is different from our day job. So in 1998 - gosh, was it really so long ago? - I became very excited when David Blunkett trumpeted the new grade of advanced skills teacher (AST).

I was then a serial head of department and was running my fourth department. Until Mr Blunkett's announcement, the only promotion available to me was to join a senior management team. I had always enjoyed teaching, so the prospect of spending long periods out of the classroom and in meetings did not appeal.

I calculated my chances of applying successfully for AST status. I rang what was then the Department for Education and Employment and asked how many such posts were being created. The long answer involved considerable repetition of the phrase "the Government is committed to the scheme". The short answer was that there would be a handful of posts nationally. So I wrote to Tony Blair for clarification and received a two-page letter from the DfEE in reply. The recurrence of the words "government" and "commitment" taught me what should have been obvious: the more noise a government makes about an initiative, the less money it spends on it.

And the Government made a huge noise about ASTs. One TES correspondent reported how, at meetings up and down the country, truculent parents were interrogating their child's class teacher: "Are you a superteacher (as the tabloids referred to the new grade)? Why not? I want a superteacher for my child."

My hopes dashed, I joined a senior management team, realised I'd made a big mistake, and left a difficult school for an easier one to take up a post as, wait for itI head of department. Four years on, my local education authority inspector asked if I would like to apply for AST status. "But I'm a head of department," I replied. (The new status is designed to keep "committed" teachers in the classroom, so is meant to be an alternative to other responsibilities.) The inspector assured me that if I was accepted as an AST, I would still be able to retain my post as head of department in my school.

My dream came true. I started as an AST this month. My first thought was whether my colleagues - some are better teachers than I am - would resent my pay rise. But I needn't have worried, for, in exactly 12 months, the carriage turns back into a pumpkin.

With my congratulatory letter from the Department for Education and Skills, I received a copy of its latest newsletter for ASTs, "Setting The Standard". As a teacher who tells pupils that it is hard to take seriously writing peppered with exclamation marks, I should have been suspicious after the first sentence: "We are very pleased to announce that AST numbers have nearly tripled in just over a year!" The real bombshell was on page four where it says there will be changes to AST funding from next year, but that this "does not signal a lessening of commitment to ASTs". Pull the other one.

The move to cease funding ASTs from the Standards Fund is, my head and LEA tell me, the end of the scheme. Still, it will be nice while it lasts. In fact, it will be nice if it starts at all. ASTs spend a day each week on outreach work in other schools. I will need a part-timer to cover for that day. In the midst of a shortage of specialist subject teachers, my school cannot recruit someone to teach the classes I would have to give up to carry out my AST duties. To sum up, I wait five years for a job to come up, it comes up, then sinks without trace. It was a nice dream while it lasted.

Jenny Owl is a head of department in the north of England. She writes under a pseudonym

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