Tony Breslin has devoted much of his career to battling for the underdog - whether teachers or the "naughty boys" on vocational courses. Chris Johnston reports.
ADVOCATES of sabbaticals for teachers can count Tony Breslin among their supporters. He is one of the lucky few to have enjoyed such a luxury - as the first recipient two years ago of the Parry Rogers Research Scholarship, worth pound;50,000.
The Edexcel Foundation-sponsored award was to support a working teacher looking at curriculum reform in a school that addressed the academic-vocational divide. At the time he was director of sixth-form studies at the School of St David amp; St Katharine - a mixed comprehensive in Haringey, north London. He had spent some time developing its curriculum and was considering starting another degree. He put forward a proposal and "kept getting shortlisted" until the scholarship was his.
Breslin, 36, started teaching in 1987 and is now a general adviser (14-19 education) to the London borough of Enfield. He also holds a range of senior examining positions. He describes the sabbatical as a remarkable professional opportunity, believing a respite from daily teaching for one or two terms allows teachers to reflect on practice, observe others and develop their ideas.
The latter point is certainly true in Breslin's case. His sabbatical involved looking at how one school prepared for a major curriculum change - introducing GNVQ part one.
Setting out to investigate the gap between academic and vocational education, Breslin says he found there was a three-way divide between classroom teachers, academics in schools and institutes of education, and the think-tanks and research bodies.
"There was a real sense in which those three groups were not working together - they were constituted in a way that made it very difficult for them to do so." It was this revelation that led him to set up the Future Education Network earlier this year.
One of its aims is to ensure teachers get a chance to contribute before changes are brought in. Breslin says this small but significant input can mean the difference between initiatives being successfully introduced, or falling by the wayside.
One obstacle is the lack of communication between the three groups, as well as the need for policymakers and academics to march to the beat of different drums. "An academic who publishes a paper in a teachers' journal is not credited - they are credited for publishing in journals read by other academics."
This leaves teachers on the frontline feeling excluded and their professional experience overlooked. Breslin feels the answer lies in sharing that knowledge. The network is organising forums to bring the three groups together in an attempt to foster greater collaboration.
The first national day of education, scheduled for January 4, is one way of sharing best practice. The network wants each participating organisation to suggest three ways of changing their approach to teaching and learning in the first decade of the new millennium. The results will be posted on the network's website.
Breslin's sabbatical also convinced him of the need for curriculum models to bridge the academic-vocational gap for all students. Targeting work-related learning at the "naughty boys" will ensure it remains the poor cousin. But even the most academically-brilliant student needs an understanding of vocational and business matters, he argues. "We have to challenge the notion that 10 A-grade GCSEs constitute a broad education - I don't think it does."
A curriculum that also encompasses community service and vocational dimensions would allow issues such as key skills to be better addressed.
The impetus for change needs to come from the top. "It's very difficult to say GNVQ Advanced is equal to A-level if you're also saying work-related learning is for the disaffected and the disapplied only." The proposal to limit the so-called world-class tests to purely academic subjects similarly enrages Breslin, who chairs the Association of Teachers of Social Sciences. "What message does that send? 'Sorry, the vocational isn't good enough'. We need to say there will be a gold standard in whatever course we offer."
Failing to remove the question mark over vocational education throws into doubt the Government's drive to widen social inclusion, he says. The largely "grammar school curriculum" still taught by many schools contributes to the bias against craft, engineering and skilled manual work in Britain. However, he does think the move to modular courses across GNVQs and A-levels lays solid foundations. If GCSEs follow suit, a 14-to-19
curriculum in which students can mix and match as desired would be created.
Breslin, who is clearly passionate about his causes, wears yet another hat: he is joint co-ordinator of Citizenship 2000, a ATSSCitizenship Foundation venture. It aimed to ensure that relevant associations produced a coordinated submission to the Crick inquiry. Breslin says citizenship education is just as important as the academic and vocational because it gives students an education in the social domain - something Britain lacks.
He acknowledges that changing the curriculum involves some hard choices, but:
"We've got to open up that box - that will involve a lot of concern and insecurity, and that's precisely why the people who need to open that box are teachers."
Ways have to be found to encourage them to innovate. Breslin continues: "It seems to me that drawing policymakers and academics and teachers into a closer net and involving local education authorities and schools of education might give us a route to doing it."
More information is available on-line from the Future Education Network: www.fen.co.uk, and ATSS: