Every Friday after school, 16 teachers at Stantonbury Campus in Milton Keynes pack away their marking, and conversation turns from the behaviour of Year 9 to the principles of pedagogy. In a unique experiment with the Open University (it is just down the road, and the school has worked with the OU before) staff have signed up as a group for an MA module in learning, curriculum and assessment. From a range of departments and at various stages in their careers, they have their own tutor, and complement official tutorials with informal discussion sessions.
"It's been an intellectual journey," says Steve Smith, a science teacher and one of the staff who volunteered to start the MA in February this year.
"I was never a great one for pedagogy, so I had doubts as to how useful the course would be. But it's changed my whole way of thinking."
Focusing on theories of learning, the module amounts to one-third of the Open University's MA in education. It was chosen by the new head of Stantonbury and fellow MA student, Mark Wasserberg, because the school is preparing for a new intake at Year 7 in 2006, when Milton Keynes changes its age of transfer. (The 2,500-pupil Stantonbury Campus is currently 12-18.) "The addition of a Year 7 makes it an ideal opportunity to review everything we do," says Mr Wasserberg. "I thought the course would make staff think through some of the concepts of knowledge and learning. And because it involves individual research projects that we can do in-house, we should get quality information about how things are working, which will be of huge importance when we come to the review."
But, at a cost of around pound;600 a student (even with a block booking discount), why doesn't he save money by paying for just one member of staff to complete the course and then brief colleagues? "It means there's a shared context," says Mr Wasserberg, who joined the school last September.
"About 10 per cent of the teachers are doing the module, which is enough to influence what we do. Every conversation around the school includes someone who's doing it; already the quality of discussion at meetings has improved."
Steve Smith agrees that the group approach is working. When they started, most studied independently, until they realised that even though the course emphasised the value of collaboration between students, they weren't collaborating themselves. "So now we have informal sessions to discuss what we're doing. It's particularly helped those who struggle to find time for the course. It's given them a focus. And you can draw strength from being part of a team."
At the Open University, John Butcher, education staff tutor, is keen to encourage this notion of peer support as a model for the future. "Emerging evidence suggests that having several teachers working together on academic professional development, even in a smaller group than at Stantonbury, is much more likely to have a positive impact than working alone. This is an innovative and effective way of using our courses."
Although all OU courses allow students to meet occasionally, this is usually over a wide geographical area and in a formal situation. At Stantonbury, tutorials are timed to suit staff, and there are more opportunities for open discussion sessions. In particular, Mr Butcher points to the "enormous benefits" of having staff from the whole range of subjects working together. "It's a rich mix. And with the head and one of the deputies also doing the course, it breaks down the normal hierarchies."
Some of the Stantonbury staff already have OU modules under their belt, but for others this is the first step. Those who decide not to continue - and Mr Wasserberg points out that he is unlikely to be able to fund other modules that fit less neatly into the school improvement plan - will be awarded a postgraduate certificate to mark their efforts. But most have appreciated the opportunity to try out new ways of teaching, rather than the chance to get paper accreditation. "It's not theory for theory's sake, it's about making practical changes," says Mr Smith. "Teachers tend to carry all sorts of baggage from their own schooldays, or from the way they've taught in the past."
So what difference has the course made to his classroom style? "I used to label students high or low ability. But now I'm much more wary about the whole concept of innate intelligence. I use praise as a motivating tool much more. And I've changed the way I use language. Often it's not the science the children don't understand, it's the language it's presented in."
This is just the kind of feedback Mr Wasserberg had hoped for. But he is realistic about the need to look on his investment as a long-term one. "New ideas are all very well, but, under pressure, people inevitably fall back on learned routines. Changing the way we work is slow and complex; anyone who thinks they can do it quickly is wrong."
But he is optimistic that when the course finishes in October, the Stantonbury graduates will put what they've learned into practice. "If you're going to be radical, you need time. But I believe this will make a huge difference to the school. If I didn't, I wouldn't have invested so much in it."
Course details at www.open.ac.uk, then, under Spotlight, choose "Courses and qualifications", then "Education and teacher training" then, under Postgraduate, Taught Masters, choose "Masters degrees in education"