Suite dreams

24th June 2005 at 01:00
Black leather sofas, frosted glass screens, wireless networked laptops. A hi tech communications office? No, a specially designed staff development suite in a Manchester high school. Sara Bubb reports

Fed up with having training sessions and meetings in a classroom on seats still warm from children's bodies, in an untidy staffroom or rattling around in a cavernous hall? Where do you go for continuing professional development?

It's a problem for which Abraham Moss high school in Manchester is trail-blazing the solution. They used to use an old classroom, but their purpose-built staff development suite opened in January - and everyone thinks it's fantastic.

The capital funding available to build the suite was pound;660,000, but this included provision of a new reception area and general office on the ground floor. The revenue costs, estimated at pound;30,000 a year, have fallen to the school budget. "We have notionally assigned this to workforce remodelling but without being able to identify any specific funding. In the end, a judgment has to be made that the benefits of the facility are worth the extra costs," says the headteacher David Watchorn.

Open from 8am till 6.30pm, it has a library, meeting areas, workstations, as well as flexible areas for small and large group training. It's well resourced too, with 30 wireless networked laptops, interactive whiteboard, printers, photocopier, scanner and camcorders for filming teaching. It's a beautiful professional space.

Andrea Taziker, a history teacher and the staffroom representative, co-ordinated the design of the interior. She wanted the quality of the staff recognised in the quality of the furnishings and made sure that everyone contributed to decisions about colour schemes (calming green), carpets, blinds - the works.

The staffroom noticeboard was frequently covered in samples. The furniture is black and chrome - a theme that is carried through to the mugs and bins.

The black leather sofas and chairs are a big hit: "You feel better when you stand up than when you sat down."

Frosted glass flexible screens make the space variable. Assistant head Pamela Thompson loves training classroom support in there because she can have a whole group together and can easily form break-out groups without having to move to other rooms.

It is a child-free zone - an oasis in a cramped 11 to 16 inner-city high school, with more than 60 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals.

Tahir Awan, like other teachers, loves the quiet working atmosphere: "I can't hear the bells or the pupils." Head of maths, Tom Swarbrick, finds it a wonderful facility, especially as he's finishing his PhD. He's even held exam board meetings there.

The suite is great for moderation. Sheena McGowan, head of English and media, can lay out all the work from 240 candidates and leave it out knowing that it'll be safe. Ms Thompson says typing out comments that others can see on the interactive whiteboard is so much better than people crowding around one monitor.

Lynne Wilson, a professional mentor for trainee teachers from Manchester Metropolitan university, finds it a great place to hold tutorials and discussions after lesson observations: "There are always interruptions in classrooms and the staffroom."

Best of all, the staff development suite administrator, Evelyn Ellis, types up her notes, which saves her from doing them at home.

Jane Howarth, the teacher in charge of developing the suite as a learning and teaching resource, is passionate about it: "It's a great forum for all sorts of people to get together, and has a vibrant atmosphere as a result.

So much cross-fertilisation is happening so naturally." She particularly likes the huge curved windows. "It's good to see so much sky - it seems to help make space for inspiration."

Mr Watchorn says it's made an enormous difference to the staff in terms of their professionalism and morale, but that it wouldn't run properly without a full-time administrator. Ms Ellis feels privileged to have this role:

"It's nice to see people's smiles when they walk in." She books meetings, training sessions, prepares resources and does any administration related to staff development.

"The suite was designed by Walker Simpson, architects, and built by Skanska, who proved to be a great team, and the project was excellently supported by Manchester City council education department building section," says Mr Watchorn.

Robert Adkins, acting deputy, sums up how everyone feels about the staff development suite: "It's indicative of the quality of professional respect that adult learners deserve and need, whether they're teachers, trainees, visitors or support staff."

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