Study dream in sight?

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
The General Teaching Council south of the border is to consider sabbaticals, and the McCrone report suggested a term off for every 10 years' teaching. John Cairney asks what teachers would do out of the classroom.

During the 1970s and 1980s, and probably for a long time before that, the agenda of the unions' annual conferences invariably included a motion to achieve a period of sabbatical leave for classroom teachers.

Few, if any, of the most dedicated activists probably expected to see such an idealistic and Utopian change to their conditions of service. At one conference, the proposal was best summed up by a 1970s radical who is now very much an establishment union figure, as an attempt by the trench-floundering troops to gaze towards the heavens and aspire to the stars - an ambition at once possible but yet at the same time, unattainable.

Now that teachers' sabbaticals are being flagged up as a possible contribution to professional development, both by the embryonic General Teaching Council in England and by the McCrone committee in Scotland, perhaps what was previously unattainable is just about imaginable, and it is time for teachers to speculate on how they would use their time if the celestial heights are indeed achieved.

Among a sample, the prospect produced a mix of responses, ranging from the idealistic to the cynical, which might just about describe the attitude of many teachers to a range of current educational issues.

Betsy Chester is a rarity, a classroom teacher who has actually had a sabbatical, in her case properly defined as "study leave". She is a senior teacher in Ruchazie Primary School in Glasgow and last year was granted a Millennium Award from the Farmington Institute in Oxford which allowed her to take a term off to attend Strathclyde University and paid for a replacement teacher.

She found the term "enjoyable, hard work and of great benefit" to herself and her school. "I studied the Creation stories from the point of view of different faiths and produced a study pack that can be used in schools."

She feels that she also gained a much better understanding of current thinking about the teaching of religious and moral education and experienced a renewed enthusiasm for her job.

Robert Harkins is principal teacher of physics at Madras College in St Andrews, but his ideal sabbatical would be spent somewhere more exotic, either in an astronomical observatory in the Canary Islands or South America, "to see first hand how they identify new planets and the technology involved", or working for Voluntary Service Overseas for a short period.

This, he thinks, would "probably be the most rewarding experience and it would be useful to discover if I was really cut out for a long-term commitment".

Closer to home he thinks that a short sabbatical would be ideal for "sampling" the police fore to see how the investigative and scientific process works, since it means he wouldn't necessarily have to join the masons!

Ally Budge is headteacher of Hillhead Primary in Wick and would also like to travel, or at least go somewhere other than Dingwall where most staff development courses in his area are held.

Taiwan would appear to suit his purposes: "One of the most radical documents recently published by HMI has been Improving Mathematics Education 5-14, which was heavily influenced by practice in the Far East. A new environment can bring you new ideas so I'd plump for looking at a successful foreign educational system."

As well as attainment in maths and language he would also like to study the relatively late start in formal education which many countries offer,"which still produces high levels of attainment".

Nowhere in her grandiose job title does the word "scepticism" appear, but Marj Adams, principal teacher of religious, moral and philosophical studies in Forres Academy, displays it in abundance: "Sabbatical term? Pie-in-the-sky malarkey. It is never going to happen."

The recent exams experience seems to have compounded her scepticism: "If I had been asked a year ago I would happily have hiked off to university to develop the philosophical ideas which I am presently teaching. But now - a curse upon the presbyterian work ethic.

"I would become a spy somewhere which would indulge my liking for philosophical terms such as the illusion argument and scepticism, memory and logic, and best of all, performance, interpretation and authenticity. Yes, I would infiltrate the Scottish Qualifications Authority, that is, if it really does exist. I do relish a challenge."

The examinations fiasco also affected Willie Scanlan, an English teacher in St Paul's High, formerly Bellarmine secondary, in Glasgow. He was impressed by the high, or to use his word, "double", standards displayed by those defending the SQA and Government positions, and feels that it would need "a lot of work" during his sabbatical to bring him up to these standards.

He would also spend some time polishing up his CV: "I would like to bring it into line with present thinking. Such quaint items as full attendance and working with children after school hours will have to go. Imagine letting people know that you spend all your time in school teaching children. I'd better start replacing them with things that really matter, such as doing some vital research on how pupils who collect Pokemon cards are four times more likely to truant than those who don't."

The last two contributions are maybe not quite what the English GTC and the McCrone committee have in mind, but then the generals who sent the infantry to flounder and die in the trenches didn't get much mud on their boots either, as Willie Scanlan and Marj Adams might have said.

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