Hit the road

21st November 2008 at 00:00
You don't have to leave your job to have an adventure. A well-timed sabbatical can be the answer, says Geraldine Brennan

Ever thought about asking your headteacher (or if you're a headteacher, your governors) for a year's unpaid leave to travel, do voluntary work, study or write your novel? Teacher sabbaticals are in the hands of the school, so go ahead and ask: but think first.

If you're concerned that a year out might harm your career, look what happened to Steve Campbell of Seaton Burn Community College in North Tyneside. Steve not only managed to spend the school year 2005-06 globetrotting with his wife Clare, also a teacher, but he was promoted while away.

The Campbells, now both 34, were in Chile planning their trip to Antarctica - the highlight of the trip - when Alison Shaw, Seaton Burn principal, contacted Steve to offer him the post of head of sixth form and assistant vice-principal.

The couple had wanted to see the world before they had children. When they set off, Steve was head of history at Seaton Burn and Clare, who is expecting twins in March, was an English teacher at Longbenton Community College. Since their return, she has also been promoted, with extra teaching and learning responsibility points for developing oracy.

The schools have a joint sixth form, which made it easier for the Campbells to co-ordinate their year's leave. They were not paid while they were away and saved Pounds 10,000 each for their trip, which included camping in the Zambia wilderness, being evacuated from a live volcano in Ecuador and touring China, Japan, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Steve draws on their gap year constantly in school, especially when teaching RE and citizenship and in assemblies. "It put a lot of things into perspective for us. We met people who had very little and had struggled in life, yet welcomed us into their homes. It made us grateful for what we'd got. And we packed in all the experiences we had always wanted."

Alison says Seaton Burn has benefited enormously from Steve's year away. "Steve is passionate when he talks about his trip and inspires the children to aim higher and see beyond their immediate environment. It is obvious he has grown as a person. He is an outstanding teacher and school leader. I knew he would make the most of the experience and bring the maximum benefit back to school."

Since Steve's return, another teacher at Seaton Burn has taken a sabbatical to live in France for a year. "It is important that we support and encourage staff and help them to grow," says Alison. "You have to look at each request on its merits and make sure children's learning is not being disrupted. In Steve's case, it was a chance for an able younger colleague to stand in for him and eventually move into the post when Steve was promoted. It worked well for us."

The Teacher Support Network believes that a well-timed sabbatical can help teachers manage stress and keep them in the profession longer. "A sabbatical year - planned, deliberate and agreed with the school as beneficial to both parties - can give teachers the chance to refresh themselves and return to the classroom, not only with new skills and experiences, but also an invigorated attitude and renewed confidence," says Patrick Nash, chief executive.

But he adds that sabbaticals are not for everyone: as well as being able to manage without an income for a year, you need to have a clear plan for how you will benefit. "Talk to friends and colleagues about the opportunity. If you decide that taking a sabbatical may be a good idea, then approach your line manager. Make sure you point out the potential benefits to the school, particularly the experiences and skills you will pick up and your renewed enthusiasm upon your return."

Craig Barton, a 26-year-old maths teacher, set off on his sabbatical year to Australia with a clear brief from his employer, The Range High School in Formby, Merseyside.

He was asked to look at good practice in functional skills (maths in real life) and financial literacy and is now preparing inservice training sessions based on his voluntary placements in Queensland schools last year.

"Australia is about 15 years ahead of us in teaching in these areas, while I was able to pass on knowledge about the effective use of ICT. It was a fruitful exchange that has informed my teaching in all sorts of ways," he says.

The Range gave Craig a year's unpaid leave to experience Australian schools, based in Brisbane where his girlfriend lives. "We could see the benefits for Craig and for the school," says Debbie Breen, head of maths. "Now we have started thinking about how we can pass on what he has learnt."

Craig started planning his trip a year in advance through contacts in the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics. He initially hoped to set up a research project, but changed his plans to focus on school placements.

"My ideal would have been to do a term in three schools, but it's hard to organise anything until you're in the country," he says. At first he concentrated on developing his maths resources website, www.mrbartonmaths.com. Autograph, a publisher whose products he reviewed, not only found him school placements but commissioned two textbooks, which he wrote during his sabbatical year.

Craig taught small groups and gave technology workshops at a range of schools "from a private girls' grammar to a under-resourced secondary with tough kids". He also wrote two novels (he's already published one, based on his student career at Cambridge).

Margarita Acklam, head of Broadway Junior School, a 240-pupil primary in Sunderland, agreed at once to support a request for a one-year sabbatical.

"A teacher wanted to go to New Zealand to see if she was ready for a longer-term move. She was a great teacher and I wanted to make sure that if she came back, she came back to us, so I kept her job open. She did come back for two years and then decided to go to New Zealand. I was fine with that; it was worth it to me to have her back for two years."

Margarita believes in helping her staff take up opportunities to travel. She says: "Part of my job as a head is to make sure the future workforce keeps being inspired. Teachers' travel is definitely part of professional development. Our children and families in this area do not go abroad much and it's important that their teachers have seen the world."

Several Broadway teachers took advantage of the short government-funded sabbaticals offered for experienced teachers in schools in challenging circumstances in 2001-04. This was followed by another government scheme offering Pounds 500 professional bursaries for teachers in their fourth and fifth year of teaching (both programmes were pilots that were not extended). The bursaries could be spent on any aspect of professional development and Broadway staff used theirs to visit the Olympics in Athens, the New York Steiner School and New Zealand.

Teachers make up almost half of UK volunteers with Voluntary Service Overseas (approximately 250 out of 600 in 2007). VSO has been making it easier for teachers to volunteer by reducing some of its placements to one year, especially for primary teachers, school leaders and those with expertise in special needs.

Gill Howeson spent a year training and mentoring teachers through VSO in the Maldives and says: "Being able to go for just a year made it all possible. I have three years to go until retirement but I was not ready to leave: I like my job. But I did want to go away.

"I was widowed quite young and brought up four children, so it had not been possible before. Having my job to come back to took all the worry out of the situation and I was able to focus on my voluntary role and then slot back into school," says Gill who teaches Year 4 and 5 at Little Waltham Church of England Primary School in Essex.

Since her placement, VSO can offer volunteers from state schools (and other public service employees) an extra benefit: their pension contributions are paid by the Government if they volunteer for more than six months.

The charity is also working in partnership with the National College for School Leadership, the National Association of Head Teachers and the Association of School and College Leaders to fund three-month placements for heads of state schools in England to work with school leaders in Namibia and Rwanda.

Caroline Webster, head of 77-pupil Ambergate Primary School in Belper, Derbyshire, took part in the pilot for the scheme in summer 2007, working as a school management consultant in Namibia "helping heads in all kinds of schools work together and look at how to develop leadership - some schools smaller than mine, some up to 800 pupils". She took the second half of the summer term out of school, funded by the school governors because the scheme was still at pilot stage, and used her summer holiday.

"It was career development for my deputy, who is now doing the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH). It gave him a chance to try headship in a planned and structured way." She would now love to do another VSO placement - "when the timing is right".

Barry Payne, 51, in his 12th year as head of Parkside Special School for seven to 16-year-olds in Norwich, is one of the next group of 14 heads leaving for the placements in January. He will be supporting heads in Namibia with a focus on inclusion. "There is a high level of disability in Namibia and it will be interesting to share perspectives." Like Caroline, Barry also sees it as "a lovely opportunity to bring the global dimension back to school: a lot of our children are not very mobile in their own communities and don't have contact with a range of cultures or ethnic groups".

Jo Klaces, 57, formerly an English teacher and now "creative agent" organising cross-curricular projects at Queensbridge School in Birmingham, broadened her horizons by spending her sabbatical year at home, studying for an MA in literary linguistics at Birmingham University. At 52, she arranged a sabbatical year from the Birmingham sixth form college where she was teaching A-level and GCSE retakes.

During her year out, Jo realised she did not want to return to teaching and was appointed director of the National Literacy Association, a charity that supports children who find reading difficult. "I would not have even thought about the NLA job if I had not had time out. I think many people probably don't go back after one year doing something different because the year has given them head space to think about what they really want to do and be open to opportunities."

Jo stayed with the NLA for two years, moving back to the classroom at Queensbridge when the charity lost funding. "My plan would have been to go back anyway before too long: I was missing day-to-day interaction with young people," she says.

Jo had started her sabbatical year firmly believing that she would come back to her job. It's best to believe the same if you want your head to believe it too.

"It's always a risk that the teacher won't come back," says Alison Shaw. "But you're helping them to stay in the long term by letting them do what they need to do."

Steve Campbell agrees: "We gave our word we would go back. We would never have threatened to leave in order to do the trip but it was important to us so we would have had to consider leaving maybe in a few years' time. I asked myself if it was career suicide before we set off but it couldn't have turned out better."

See www.vso.org.ukvolunteering or www.vso.org.ukpartnershipsncsl for the heads' placement scheme

Quick-fire information

Q: Are sabbaticals an entitlement?

A: No, they are at your head or governors' discretion.

Q: After how long can you ask your headgovernors for a sabbatical?

A: There is no set rule on this but you are more likely to get a positive response once you have proved your value to the school, perhaps after three years.

Q: How long can a sabbatical be?

A: Up to a year is usual. If a year is not possible for your school, you could try asking for unpaid leave for the summer or autumn term, which would give you more than five months away, including the summer break.

Q: Are you paid while you're away?

A No unless you're being seconded to another post or to do a project for the school, in which case it's a secondment rather than a sabbatical.

Q: What happens to your pension?

A: Budget for paying your own pension and national insurance contributions. Check the position on this with your school or local authority. You might be able to get some contributions paid depending on what you are doing while away (for example, through the current scheme to support VSO volunteers).

Q: What are the rules on taking a sabbatical (for example, does it have to be educational?)

A: You can ask for a sabbatical for any reason but you are more likely to be successful if you can show benefits to the school: if you want to travel, explain how the experience will inform your teaching. If you want to do research abroad in your subject, see if your subject association can help you put together a project that would appeal to your school.

Where to look next

Can't arrange a sabbatical but would love to widen your horizons? Here are some tips:

- The Teachers' International Professional Development programme organises overseas study visits for classroom teachers to observe good practice, mostly for two weeks in school holidays. Local authorities receive an allocation of places and decide on the theme for the visit. Contact SGardner@cfbt.com for more details.

- Teachers from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland with five years' experience can apply to exchange jobs and homes with teachers in Australia, New Zealand or Canada through the League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers. Full details can be found at: www.lect.org.ukprogrammesone_yearindex.asp

The closing date for exchanges in 2009-10 is December 18.


The TES Magazine would like to clarify the following in regard to the article, "A just reward", that appeared in the issue of November 7.

The Chartered London Teacher scheme invites teachers to register for a professional qualification where they could receive a one-off payment of Pounds 1,000, rather than Pounds 1,000 per year.

The National Assessment Agency for Advanced Skills Teachers and Excellent Teachers is part of VT Education and Skills, and the Teacher Learning Academy is run by the General Teaching Council for England.

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