The 2,000th anniversary of Christ's birth is a religious sort of diary date. Anxious, perhaps, to remind us of the fact, the Millennium Commission has chosen to reward an appropriate if frequently underrated species with Pounds 750,000. Step forward the teacher of religious education.
Over the next three years, 75 primary RE teachers will get one-term study breaks at college or university. The first ten start this term, delving into their subject at institutions including Brunel, Warwick and Cambridge Univerisities and St Mary's College Belfast.
Sabbatical programmes have caught the attention of the Government and its Teacher Training Agency as they cast around for ways of attracting, and keeping, well-qualified staff - "cost neutral" ways, preferably.
The bulk of the funding comes from Britain's lottery players and goes straight to schools to pay for supply cover. There is some administrative expense, but the tab is picked up by a little-known charity, the Farmington Institute in Oxford.
Farmington believes the scheme is an ideal way of promoting the professionalism admired by the Government and its satellites. "All teachers are under terrific pressure," says Martin Rogers, former chief master of King Edward's, Birmingham, now the institute director, "and RE is one of the most difficult subjects to teach. A period of time out to think, to research, to be refreshed, is wonderfully encouraging and positive."
So convinced is he, that Mr Rogers calls on ministers to promote sabbaticals as a motivating tool for the whole profession. "This is something that all teachers should have an opportunity to do. I'd like the Government to think about this, quite seriously, to raise the status of teaching."
The institute, based in agreeable offices in Harris-Manchester College, was established by Robert Wills (as in Wills's Tobacco). Thanks to his largesse, Farmington has spent 25 years sponsoring religious education. It runs an award scheme for outstanding RE departments, and a school bursary scheme to help teachers with spare-time research projects. For the past five years it has run a sabbatical scheme of its own, paying for 15 secondary RE teachers, "Farmington Fellows", to study for a term.
Teachers who have already benefited from Farmington Fellowships speak enthusiastically of its regenerative powers. "Has it been helpful? Without a doubt," says Kerstin Roth, head of RE at Marlborough School in Woodstock, Oxford. "All the Farmington Fellows would give a loud yes to that. It has certainly provided time to be refreshed and time to think about moving forwards.
"After nine years, your brain is getting addled by administration and child speak. It is a chance to become far more rigorous as a teacher."
Adrian Brown, deputy head of sixth form at Ecclesbourne School near Derby, is equally straightforward: "Teachers simply get shattered, jaded. Afterwards people said, 'God, you look 10 years younger'."
The Farmington Institute is seeking applications for next year's millennium award. Tel: 01865 271965