Private investigators reap rewards
Ceri Howell, a science teacher at Birley community college in Sheffield, has been teaching for just three years. She is keen to get on, though, and so she has become one of the first teachers in the country to enrol with the pilot stage of the General Teaching Council's Teacher Learning Academy (TLA).
"There are quite a few research ideas I'd like to follow up," she says.
"For example, there's the transition from primary to secondary - science is one of the subjects where it's most different between the two phases." Her department already brings primary children in to do science investigations.
"I plan to review the programme - observe teachers, talk to the children - make it more effective," she says.
There have always been teachers like Ms Howell, with the talent and initiative to try new things, probing and researching to see what works and what doesn't, and coming up with useful and interesting conclusions. Often, though, that is as far as it goes - conclusions and improvements do not make it into the wider professional world, as Sarah Stephens, the GTC's director of policy, acknowledges. "For the past decade or more," she says, "teachers have taken forward immense changes, and reaped benefit for themselves and their pupils, but some of that has gone unrecognised".
The GTC aims to tackle this through the academy which is, in effect, a national framework for the recognition and accreditation of classroom-based research and development by teachers.
It is not a building but a network, primarily of teachers, bound together by agreed research and professional development criteria. The academy will offer a pathway of professional awards and, for participants who want academic accreditation, there is also the chance to work with a university and accumulate points towards a higher degree.
"The intention is to throw light on teacher learning and development and recognise what's being done within the profession," says Ms Stephens.
For Viv Garrett of Sheffield Hallam University, it is a heady prospect, exactly in line with her institution's values.
"We were already developing a teacher learning framework together with four South Yorkshire local authorities," she says. "Then we realised that our project matched the TLA. It's an exciting development."
Sheffield Hallam is partnering the city's local education authority (one of three LEAs, with Birmingham and Manchester, that are piloting the academy).
Sheffield authority shares her optimism. "It very much complemented what we were developing," says Martin Burgoyne, an adviser for continuing professional development. "So we decided to go in 100 per cent with the GTC."
The authority team has promoted the academy strongly to Sheffield teachers.
"It's been tremendously well received in schools, with 120 teachers having enrolled already, including some of our supply staff," Mr Burgoyne says. He is particularly keen on the collaborative possibilities of the project. "It can be a group of teachers working together supported by a senior member of staff - not just the odd bright spark disappearing off to university."
The GTC intends that teachers will be able to work with the academy with or without higher education accreditation. Without, it is a professional qualification, there is no cost, and the work is checked by local authority advisers or teachers - "verifiers" - trained to do the job.
In Sheffield, where the project grew from existing teamwork between the authority and the university, the feeling is that the academic link matters. "When we set it up with Hallam, we wanted to ensure the accreditation opportunity," says Mr Burgoyne. "So we give some financial support."
Hallam charges pound;240 for work leading to 30 Cat (credit accumulation and transfer) points. The authority, the teacher and the teacher's school each provide pound;80 of this.
Accreditation certainly matters to Ceri Howell, who expects that the academy will enable her ultimately to achieve a higher degree. She is having tutorial guidance from Sheffield Hallam and she hopes to develop the work to the level where she will initially gain 30 Cat points towards the 180 needed for a masters degree. Beyond that, she plans to work at higher levels, building on her own speciality, which is health and social care, researching into and developing interactive online resources. She finds the emphasis on school-based work highly attractive.
"When you do a masters degree outside school, you're quite overloaded," she says. "When you're working on a project where you can see the benefit in your school, you're much more motivated."
The model exemplified by Ms Howell is only one way in which teachers can engage with the academy. In Birmingham, for example, Lisa Bradbury at Marlborough junior school is keen to spread her enthusiasm for philosophy in the primary school. Already an experienced teacher-researcher - a couple of years ago she had a teacher research scholarship from the National Union of Teachers - she is working in six primaries, as both a participant and a verifier of colleagues' work. "I'm interested in research because it bears on the things a teacher wants to do: professional development, improvement plans, performance management. If you're going to do hard work it needs to be time-effective and cost-effective."
Beverley McGowan, deputy head of Gorton Mount primary in Manchester - the third of the academy pilot authorities - echoes this. A teacher for 27 years, she has already worked on a big research project with Manchester authority and the GTC, studying effective professional development strategies. Now, with the academy, she is going to take this work forward, always with the focus on research at classroom level.
"Your classroom is your raw material," she says. "That's where all your data is - all the material you need is there."