Holiday on ice is just the ticket

25th February 2000 at 00:00
THE Government thinks it might be a good idea to give teachers a sabbatical.

Where do you fancy? The Caribbean? Lots of interesting educational projects there. Or maybe just a few months reading in your favourite armchair?

Before you start shaking out the beach towel or dusting off those Jane Austen novels, take a closer look at what Whitehall means. The consultation paper on professional development talks about experienced teachers being given a "period away from the classroom for development activity and research".

Development activity and research do not sound like much of a break from the classroom. And would that be the sort of research that chief inspector Chris Woodhead criticised when he asked in his annual report "why is so much time and energy wasted in research that complicates what ought to be straightforward"? The Government says it has no fixed view on what teachers' sabbaticals should involve. Having just returned from a sabbatical myself I am all in favour of them. But if they are to work they must mean you return to work with new energy and enthusiasm. Worthy "development activity" may not achieve that.

When, after 20 years in the BBC, I took a sabbatical - a journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan - I was initially surprised that the organisers did not require me to produce anything at the end of it. This struck me as very trusting but also as very enlightened.

I was told the time was mine to do as I wished. I was free to take any university classes I fancied. They would be equally happy if I chose a graduate course on education policy or life-drawing. When I queried this I was told about the former fellow, an American reporter, who had spent his entire time at the university ice-skating. The director of the fellowship said he had thought that was stretching the rules a bit but, in the end, the ice skater turned out to be one of their most successful "graduates". While he was skating he was, apparently, also thinking. After several months of thinking on ice he returned to his newspaper and wrote an extended piece about champion ice-skaters. The quality of the writing earned him a Pulitzer Prize, America's most prestigious journalism award. I was not sufficiently brazen to spend all my time ice-skating. Howeer, while I did take the graduate course in education policy I also took several other classes just for their intrinsic fun and interest. The result of my time away from the daily deadlines was two-fold: a new, and I hope fresher, perspective on my field of journalism and new energy and enthusiasm for the job. Anything that could do the same for teachers would boost both staff retention and the quality of lessons.

So I hope the Government presses ahead with the sabbatical idea and avoids being too puritanical about it. Teaching is an exhausting, isolated and often repetitive job. Those well-known phenomena of burn-out and drop-out would, I am sure, be reduced by applying the tonic marked "sabbatical".

After all, why should university staff get sabbaticals when school teachers do not? The usual answer, I know, is that the former need time for research. So do teachers. Not only to update their subject knowledge but also to stimulate the grey matter. But it would be a mistake to require the research to be narrowly relevant to their job. This is not a luxury; unless a teacher retains their excitement about learning they will find it hard to pass that on to their pupils.

So I urge David Blunkett to give teachers a sabbatical and let them use it as they think fit even if that brings opposition from the Treasury and the tabloids. Teachers are already too conscientious for their own good; they need encouragement to relax and generate new ideas not to work harder.

Let them sign up for courses at their local university but do not require that it must be anything to do with teaching. Facilitate visits to other schools by all means, even better if there could be bursaries to visit schools in other countries. But it would be just as useful to encourage visits or placements at other places of work. Anything that broadens experience is useful.

Nothing could be more valuable than giving teachers a sabbatical; they, like few other professionals, will be able to pass on the benefits of their restorative, energising experiences to thousands of students.

Just think of the great lesson plans that might come to a teacher as they perform their pirouettes on the ice.

Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent Another Voice MIKE BAKER

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