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Time for reflection

Oxford fellowships for teachers? They're no fantasy, reports Susannah Kirkman

Fed up with the daily grind? How about a term away among the dreaming spires, all expenses paid? Every year two Oxford colleges, Merton and St Peter's, offer four studentships, "to give school-teachers leisure for thought and study in their subject".

The Farmington Institute, based at Harris Manchester College in Oxford, also offers 50 fellowships for religious education teachers allowing a term's study at one of eight universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.

Former Farmington fellow Kerstin Roth recalls: "It was a wonderful experience, coming from a frantic world where your subject is often undervalued, to be pampered with lovely meals and marvellous libraries. I had time to stand back from the job and re-evaluate what I was doing." Ms Roth was then head of RE at Wood Green School, Witney, but moved on to become head of sixth form at Marlborough School shortly after she became a Farmington fellow. She used her time to carry out research into ways of using the Holocaust as a topic for sixth-form study.

The institute exists mainly to improve religious education in schools and teacher-fellows are encouraged to investigate a teaching theme. Previous research subjects have included a feminist view of the Book of Ruth and education for mutual understanding in Northern Ireland.

Afterwards, the projects are filed in the Farmington database, available for other teachers. Fellows receive plenty of support during their sabbatical - they each have a mentor and a weekly tutorial to help them plan their research. They can log into a network of RE teachers, as the institute holds an annual conference for all past and present fellows. A fair number of former fellows have subsequently been promoted or changed direction in their careers.

Nick Mead moved from his job as head of RE at a large comprehensive to a senior lecturer's post at Westminster College, Oxford, soon after his Farmington fellowship. "I was already considering teacher training as a next step and the fellowship acted as a springboard," he says.

A mentor for student teachers at his own school, Mr Mead spent the term researching the most effective methods used by mentors elsewhere. This allowed him to write papers for academic journals, an important stepping-stone to his new job.

Surprisingly, RE teachers are not falling over each other to apply for fellowships, even though Farmington pays the full cost of supply cover. It is expecting around 80 to 90 applicants for the 50 fellowships this year.

Merton and St Peter's receive about 12 applications on average for four studentships, probably because there are only enough funds to pay for one substitute teacher. Teachers at both are also expected to undertake a specific project during their term at Oxford. While some have used the time to work on a book, others have carried out research.

The college hopes that the teacher studentship scheme will ultimately help to attract a wider range of undergraduates.

Janice Gibson, who is assistant principal in charge of student support at John Leggott sixth-form college in Scunthorpe, says her sabbatical project helped ease the transition to Oxford for her students. She carried out research into the pastoral systems of sixth-form colleges in the south of England and interviewed former John Leggott students at Oxford to ensure that future undergraduates are well prepared for university life.

"They need to understand the differences between the various colleges and what to expect when they get here," she says. "I had time to monitor and reflect on what we do, which is very rare in a busy teaching life."

* The Farmington Institute is offering 25 fellowships for primary teachers and 25 for secondary teachers. Preference will be given to teachers aged between 25 and 45. Closing date: February 10. Contact: Martin Rogers, Farmington Institute for Christian Studies, Harris Manchester College, Oxford OX1 3TT. Tel: 01865 271965. Fax: 01865 271969.

* At Merton and St Peter's, there are four one-term studentships available (three are at Merton) and six schoolteacher study visits, lasting three weeks in July. Applicants should be primarily sixth-form teachers, housemastershousemistresses or headteachers. Closing date: February 20. Contact: the Tutorial Secretary, Merton College, Oxford OX1 4JD.

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