Teachers are experimenting with a new system for recognising the unseen learning they do in their day-to-day work. The teacher learning academy is the General Teaching Council for England's big idea to encourage and reward teachers' continuing professional development. Not only does it give teachers accreditation towards a postgraduate qualification, it also provides a common structure for the range of activities that they already do to hone their skills in the classroom.
Worcestershire is one of the education authorities helping to pilot the new framework. So far, 50 teachers in three of the county's secondary schools and their feeder primaries are taking part, with a further 20 staff expected to join in September.
Elizabeth Johnstone, professional development adviser with Worcestershire, is upbeat about the scheme. She says it is giving teachers what they want - recognition for professional inquiry and school-based research. "This was like a gift," she says. "As an LEA, we were running some of these mini-projects with schools, but were conscious that although teachers were getting out of it the satisfaction of a job done and moving themselves forward in their own school, there was no kind of external recognition."
The teacher learning academy was launched in January 2004 and piloted by partnerships of education authorities and universities in Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield. Now in its second year, it involves school staff in more than 20 LEAs.
Following publication of an evaluation study at the end of this year, it is expected to become available for all teachers in England in September 2006.
The framework fits in with the Department for Education and Skills focus on teachers' professionalism in its five-year strategy, which calls for "a major commitment to staff development with high-quality support and training to improve assessment, care and teaching".
All those with qualified teacher status who are registered with the GTCE will be eligible to enrol. Those already taking part range from supply teachers to school leaders. The system is intended to be flexible to accommodate the full range of teachers' professional development. Most of those involved in the trials are taking on projects linked to performance management objectives or school improvement priorities.
And those who have already been through the process have worked on improving and researching a broad range of practice. Areas range from national strategies such as the use of ICT or assessment for learning, to more creative ideas - such as how philosophy could support speaking and listening skills for multi-lingual Year 2s, or how dance can support teaching at secondary school.
"It's not just about giving recognition for what teachers already do," said Keith Hill of the GTC, who manages the initiative. "It's about influencing what they do, having an impact on their learning and, therefore, on the pupils themselves."
But how does it work? A teacher taking part in a teacher learning academy project must provide evidence of what they set out to achieve, what they did achieve - and through reflection and analysis, what they learned in the process.
Central to this are six "core dimensions" which involve research, accessing peer support, planning, implementing and evaluating the project and, finally, disseminating your findings. This is partly designed to give teachers a clear, manageable focus for their professional learning by establishing what they already know, and identifying where they can find out more. And it encourages self-reflection at every stage.
As teachers enrol in the academy, they can progress through six levels - so far, the trials have focused on the first three: associate, senior associate and member. The other stages will be senior member, fellow and senior fellow. Work on a project at senior associate or member stages would take approximately two terms. From the second senior associate stage onwards, teachers can gain 30 credit points towards a higher education qualification, such as a masters degree.
The requirements for each level are intended to mirror teachers' diverse career paths. For example, a newly qualified teacher could enrol during their induction year and seek professional recognition at stages 1 or 2.
Advanced skills teachers would submit at stages 3 or 4, while the framework could also support future applications for excellent teacher status.
And the pilot is merging the new framework with the National College for School Leadership's programme for middle leaders. A crucial element to this framework, which the GTC is developing, is a support structure to help guide teachers through it.
"The challenge is for it to be generally accessible for all teachers," says Keith Hill. "It has to be possible for someone, irrespective of where they are, to get the information they need and have a means of helping them through the process."