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They listen and you learn

A pioneering scheme of peer coaching has been set up to improve teaching. Martin Whittaker reports

Jane O'Brien is one of a new breed of critical friend.

In her new role at Kingston college, she gets alongside her colleagues, listens and encourages them to adopt new approaches and resources in the classroom. It's a role that calls for great tact and sensitivity, and skills bordering on those of a workplace counsellor.

After all, how do you approach somebody with 25 years' teaching experience and suggest that you can help them become better at their job? The answer is - gently.

"It's about getting them to open up and trust you," she says. "If you're a good coach and good with people you can say 'OK - you don't want me to coach you, but is there anything else? Is there anything you're doing in the class that I can help you with? Forget the coaching - let's look at some of the changes we might be able to make. What is it you teach that you find the students really don't like, or you don't like teaching?'

"So we come at it from a different angle. If they see value in that, they will come back to you."

This is peer coaching, and if you don't have it already, it's heading your way. Jane O'Brien is among the first cohort of subject learning coaches already working with their colleagues, and a further 1,200 are currently training.

The Subject Learning Coach programme was developed under the Success For All strategy by the Department for Education and Skills and the Learning and Skills Network and new teaching materials have been produced.

The first phase is concentrating on areas which have come up as weakest in inspections - science, entry to employment, business studies and construction. Phases two and three will focus on maths, health and social care, agricultural courses, computers, modern foreign languages, engineering, and adult and community learning.

Subject learning coaches will, says the LSN, become "champions of change"

within their organisations, refreshing approaches to teaching and training, and helping to inspire learners.

To become one, you have to be nominated by a manager in your organisation.

But what's in it for the coach? According to the LSN, benefits include forging more worthwhile relationships with students and colleagues, and there's an accredited qualification which could ultimately count towards a Masters degree.

So what is coaching? It differs from training in that the coaching relationship is more mutual. Peer coaching encourages each participant to draw on the skills of the other.

Although the programme is still in its infancy, an early evaluation found that the impact of peer coaching can be considerable where participants have embraced it wholeheartedly.

But the evaluation by Oxford Brookes university also found that a quarter of the coaches were dropping out. Some felt unsupported by their organisation and frustrated by a lack of commitment from managers.

"The most articulated issue was one of time needed to attend the programme and time to carry out the coaching tasks in an already busy schedule," said the study. Nevertheless, the scheme is gaining momentum. There is even a Learning and Skills Subject Learning Coach of the Year category in the DfES Star Awards, the further education Oscars. Debbie Wilme was its first winner last year.

Until recently, she was a subject learning coach in business at Education and Training Skills, a private training company in Exeter. She now works for Plymouth college.

She was also one of the pioneers of this scheme, involved in the development of learning resources with the DfES Standards Unit four years ago.

"It's a bit like being a supportive friend," she said. "We were taught techniques to use with our peers to help them reflect."

What qualities do you need? "You need to really be a good listener, because it's very easy to jump in with suggestions, and as a coach you can't really be doing that. You need to be very supportive, and to make time available."

She admits it's not always easy. "I don't think you are ever going to be 100 per cent successful as a coach. Some people won't want to change. But you can try."

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