The idea that excellent teachers should be able to gain recognition and promotion without being required to leave the classroom is not new.
Grades similar to the proposed "super-teacher" who will begin to appear in English schools from September have been introduced in other countries. In Australia, where superteachers have been employed in both the government and independent education systems since the early 1990s, they have even been given the same title: Advanced Skills Teacher (AST).
In return for the title of AST and its associated modest salary allowance -A$1,500-2,000 (pound;625-pound;835) - teachers have been expected to perform a range of extra duties within their schools. They have supervised student teachers and undertaken various staff development roles. In New South Wales individual ASTs have concentrated on a particular aspect of schooling, such as literacy or special needs.
But research in Australia suggests that far from achieving the desired effect of recognising and rewarding the excellent teacher, promotion to AST has been associated with various difficulties, including increased stress, role conflict and decreased satisfaction with teaching.
I was one of the co-authors of an investigation into teacher motivation, health and occupational satisfaction in government schools in Sydney which helped to draw attention to these problems. Teachers and managers in 71 schools completed a questionnaire probing their reasons for becoming teachers, their personal values and commitments, and their occupational satisfaction. The questionnaire was also used to gauge stress levels.
In all, 892 teachers completed the questionnaire, 170 of whom were working as ASTs. Just over two-thirds of the ASTs were women (72 per cent).
Our study confirmed many of the concerns that previous research had raised about ASTs but also identified additional problems. ASTs differed significantly from the rest of the sample on both self-rating of overall satisfaction and change in satisfaction. They were more likely to report that they were "highly dissatisfied" or "somewhat dissatisfied" with teaching and that they were "more highly dissatisfied" than when they started teaching.
They were also more stressed than most other school staff.
One of the main sources of ASTs' dissatisfaction was the conflict they felt between the demands of their new position and their preferred activity: classroom teaching. They reported that their administrative and other "non-teaching" roles were problematic. Ironically, they also believed that their classroom effectiveness had declined - and they found this upsetting.
Their worries were compounded by the suspicion that some schools and headteachers regarded the AST position as a "waste-paper basket" to which unwanted or difficult duties were consigned.
The ASTs also seemed to be cynical about their job title and role, which they regarded as tokenistic. Some complained that the selection procedures did not identify good teachers so much as reward "cv building", and there is evidence from our study - and others - that the allocation of AST positions was extremely ad hoc.
Some schools took the selection of ASTs very seriously, but other schools gave out the title to everyone.
While the intentions behind the introduction of the AST category in Australia were laudable, it did not achieve what was intended for it. The main difficulties appear to have arisen because of uncertainty about two key aspects - the duties of AST staff, and how deserving teachers were to be identified and selected. The latter problems have prompted discussion on how merit in teaching generally is to be identified.
At a time when there are moves to introduce a similar position in Britain, the AST in Australia is being removed from most government and independent educational systems.
WHAT ENGLAND'S BEST WILL GET
England's advanced skills teachers are likely to earn between pound;25,000 and pound;40,000. They will be expected to work longer hours than their colleagues and will spend up to one day a week as staff mentors, advising on classroom organisation and teaching methods and preparing teaching materials. he first English ASTs will begin work in education action zones this September.
Dr Catherine Scott and Sue Cox of Nottingham Trent University are currently working on an English version of the Australian study that Dr Scott and Dr Steve Dinham carried out for the University of Western Sydney.
* Letters, page 23
* Last Word, Ted Wragg, page 40