* ighly-experienced teachers speak of the most exciting time of their professional lives while schools in challenging urban settings are becoming models of best practice for training and developing staff. Schools have home-grown talent to fill most management vacancies and teachers can spend time on research projects designed to find out what really works in the classroom.
What is the secret ingredient bringing about these transformations? They are the result of collaboration - thanks to a project from the National College for School Leadership to encourage schools around the country to set up Networked Learning Communities (NLCs). And now these projects are bearing fruit.
Andrew Brown is the headteacher of West View primary in Hartlepool - a school where around 60 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals and an above-average number have special educational needs. He describes it as "extremely challenging" - but he's attracting high-calibre candidates for teaching vacancies, enthusing his staff and developing home-grown management potential.
He said: "Teachers from schools that are hitting 90-plus per cent in their Sats targets would never have thought that they have something to learn from my school. But we have proved that they have. I work in an extremely challenging school. I am attracting teachers because of the continuing professional development that I can offer them. It is increasing the quality of candidates that I can attract to this school.
"For some of the leaders, and I am one of them, this is the most exciting CPD we've encountered in 20 years of teaching."
So, what's his secret? His school is part of the Hartlepool NLC - 13 primary schools and one special school collaborating on ways to improve teaching and learning. Seventy "teacher enquirers" from the network's schools have been researching ways of improving teaching and learning with a focus on discovering what actually works in the classroom.
And the results are impressive. Now 90 per cent of promoted posts in Hartlepool's primary schools are occupied by members of the community. Mr Brown said: "We had realised for a number of years that while attainment had risen very swiftly, especially at key stage 2, we had reached a plateau. We had certainly seen improvement in results but it was still a plateau. Myself and three other heads decided to look at collaborative teacher enquiry as a way out of this. To see if anyone was seeing the same as we did." They asked teachers' opinions on what was needed - with a strong focus on continuing professional development. "We found teachers with similar concerns to ours and we provided the infrastructure to get them working together. We had 14 or 15 enquiry groups, each working on a different topic.
"We learned a lot about how not to do it. This means that now we have the context for what works in teacher enquiry and one thing you really need if it is going to work is committed leadership."
The network has focused on research lesson study - groups of teachers undertaking a research exercise to solve classroom problems and raise standards by identifying a focus, developing joint lessons and finding new practices that work.
"When the primary strategy came along we were interested in incorporating that into the network," said Mr Brown. "Schools that were already members formed a new network to look at it. We invited a new school to join and decided to work on research lesson study. We provided the infrastructure, set a maximum of three teachers to work on it. It was a phenomenal success.
"We had one teacher who had been in the profession for just three years presenting a report to the NCSL recently, detailing the huge advances that she has seen in her own career."
He said the NLC's work was now seen as a major force in improving standards and boosting staff morale. "About five years ago, the LEA was initially a little bit cautious but now sees it as the way forward for training. It's about collaboration not competition and the realisation that you cannot succeed every single time - we don't. As long as you learn something each time."
Pat O'Brien is headteacher at English Martyrs Catholic primary school in Merseyside and a co-leader of the Janus Network, an NLC incorporating 10 urban primary schools in the area. Her school was one of five already collaborating as part of a Catholic cluster and beacon network. The other five joined forces with them in 2002.
The Janus Network has chosen to focus on two areas - improving literacy and writing skills through ICT (including specific work on boys' literacy) and improving pupils' transition from the foundation stage to key stage 1. It is also using emotional intelligence and teacher enquiry as tools to achieve its aims with teachers trying new practices in the classroom and then reporting back to colleagues, thanks to best practice research scholarships from the Department for Education and Skills.
"For the schools involved, it is the best time of our professional lives, nothing short of inspirational. The only way I can describe the effects of this are as an astronomical leap," said Mrs O'Brien.
"Each school appointed two lead learners for each project with responsibility for driving forward the work and development in their areas.
Support and training was in place for them.
"People have time to pursue their own projects and in return they share the results with the community. It enables them to learn and also to give something back."
She said all the people involved in teacher enquiry had moved on to become members of leadership teams, deputy heads or heads in their own right. "We enable them to have the time and space to do individual research, and at the end of their 12 months they must present it to the rest of the staff.
"Through this we are building up a pool of future leaders by concentrating on their professional development and building up their confidence."
And the Janus Network is already thinking about future projects and reinventing itself as the Janus Community Alliance. "We still intend to keep our links and work together," said Mrs O'Brien. "Our schools had a history of working together and we thought the NLC scheme was a wonderful opportunity. Now we will be building on that even further."