Almost 70 physics teachers from Edinburgh and the Lothians gathered recently at a hotel in the capital for an evening of cheese and wine. But the main incentive was simply to meet other teachers.
"There's a great deal of enthusiasm out there," says Tom Balanowski, principal teacher of physics at Linlithgow Academy in West Lothian, "and the response to the event was very pleasing."
Mr Balanowski is involved in the new Physics Teacher Network launched by the Institute of Physics to provide support. He is one of a team of six local co-ordinators in Scotland who started in October, each responsible for a different area. The support should help to improve the quality of physics or science teaching in schools, boost physics teachers' morale and thus improve retention rates in the profession.
The institute recognised that the last thing it should be doing was to take any physics teachers out of the classroom, thus it argued local support would have to be provided by experienced, practising teachers working in their own time. Local co-ordinators commit a half-day per week of their time to network activities and receive an annual honorarium for their work.
The UK scheme began as a pilot project in 2002. Catherine Wilson, the national co-ordinator, says: "There were six pilot co-ordinators and they did all sorts of different things. We encourage diversity. They came out saying it was time consuming, but challenging and rewarding."
There are now 15 co-ordinators throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with 14 more to start in the autumn. Six co-ordinators have been appointed in Scotland, including Mr Balanowski covering Edinburgh and the Lothians, and a further one is to be found for the central region.
"Physics teachers are becoming a precious commodity and we can't afford to lose any," says Mrs Wilson. "The network aims to provide more support for teachers, to help them feel wanted and to give them a chance to talk to each other. Very often a physics specialist will be the only specialist in the school.
"At S1S2 there are quite a few people teaching the physics bit of the science curriculum but they are not confident in their knowledge, so network co-ordinators can help. What the co-ordinators are aiming to do is to provide the sort of support the local authority advisers used to provide."
Each co-ordinator has an established database of the names and e-mail addresses of every teacher in their area and they bring their own ideas to the programme.
"One co-ordinator has organised a newsletter for the area that goes out to every school," Mrs Wilson says. "Another has arranged for secondary staff to go into primary schools in his cluster to help teachers feel more confident teaching physics. He is trying it out himself and hoping it will spread."
Mr Balanowski says: "It's all about sharing ideas; getting professionals in touch with each other and finding out what's happening in other schools.
There's a lot of good practice going on out there."
The first challenge, he says, was to set up the computer database. "It's a communication network for all physics staff. At the touch of a button you can ask any question at all, supporting each other."
Other initiatives include arranging an exchange of materials, looking at primary to secondary transition and looking at learning from other schools.
"There is a lot of good practice that perhaps other authorities can pick up on," Mr Balanowski says. "Some schools have more pupils taking physics than other sciences, so it's a question of asking why and how we can encourage our pupils to do the same, especially girls. And how we can entice people to continue with science after secondary education."
To sign on to the network, contact Brian Redman, email@example.com iop2.htm