The shackles fall away

20th October 2000 at 01:00
The government might be getting more serious about sabbaticals, reports Gerald Haigh, while John Claydon (overleaf) describes the benefits of his term out of school

John Claydon describes how a sabbatical at an Oxford college made him a new man.

I think I deserved a term away from school after 28 years of teaching, 10 of them as a head. But it was only the enlightenment and generosity of my governors that allowed me to take up a place at St Hugh's College, Oxford, on a schoolteacher fellowship. These fellowships are offered by several Oxbridge colleges at various times of the year - some for two to three weeks, some for a term. My fellowship was for this year's summer term.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if teachers knew that every few years they could recharge their batteries by doing something different from working in a school? Indeed, considering the extraordinary pressure that the job now exerts, a sabbatical seems a sensible and obvious way of extending the length of our careers and retaining our professional enthusiasm.

First, teachers are bound to be refreshed by the break from the remorseless slog of teaching and its attendant bureaucracy. A typical term-time week is a minimum of 50 hours - often much longer. Even the summer holiday rarely allows us the chance to focus completely on non-school things before exam results intrude to restart the unremitting annual cycle.

As head, the opportunity to observe the school with fresh eyes in September was something I found myself anticipating more eagerly as the summer term drew to a close. Each of the other four members of my senior management team had been given the chance to take a higher level of responsibility than they had before - and was paid for it. The deputy head, who was acting head, gained experience which will be invaluable to him and the school in the future.

In my case, because of the way I spent my time last term, there will be a specific benefit to A-level resources. For three months I immersed myself in the world of academic history. By attending lectures and tutorials, reading widely, debating with undergraduates, postgraduates and academic staff - and writing - I revitalised my subject interest and broadened my knowledge .

Inevitably, as the shackles of school fell away, I took stock on a personal level and changed my priorities. I realised the full impact of the personal benefit when I had to think hard to remember every feature of my school's forthcoing building programme. In any education system with a reasonably long-term vision, this renewal ought to be justification enough to persuade schools to encourage the practice.

In 1972 - the year I qualified as a teacher - the James Report on teacher training recommended regular sabbaticals. Margaret Thatcher was Education Secretary, and the report's proposals led to in-service training much as we know it - although Inset days had to wait until Kenneth Baker.

The report identified three cycles of training for teachers: personal education; pre-service training and induction with much more emphasis on the importance of the probationary year than before; and the notion of continuous supplementary training - that is, inset.

Part of this third cycle was the entitlement to a term's sabbatical every seven years. The calculation was that this would involve about 3 per cent of teachers at any one time, and though the heavy cost was recognised, it was suggested that the regular diversion of some of the staff to training would be a worthwhile redeployment of resources. Indeed, the intention was that one term's sabbatical every seven years was only an interim arrangement; one every five years was the longer term recommendation.

These proposals, at least as far as sabbaticals were concerned, fell on deaf ears, probably as much because of the disruption and complicated administrative arrangements - which the James Report recognised - as of the cost.

In the early Eighties, the one period when sabbaticals were relatively common in the state sector, the motive force often was the local education authorities' desire to help inadequate teachers find a way out of the profession.

The entitlement to regular sabbaticals is well established in other countries. They are also far more readily available in the independent sector - another example of inequitable resourcing.

Any rational calculus of the methods available to help teachers stave off the worst elements of strain and stress must consider the need for refreshment that only a complete break can bring. An ageing teaching force makes this even more imperative. This is one practical step in which teaching can be given back some of its status and professionalism.

I hope very much that the Government recognises this, and takes an early initiative in promoting its expansion.

John Claydon is head of Wyedean school, a mixed 11-18 comprehensive in Sedbury, Gloucestershire

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