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Learning at Work Week is for teachers too

Education Secretary Damian Hinds’ recent promise of a sabbatical for teachers with 10 years’ service must surely be welcome, not least by the 3,750 teachers estimated to be on long-term leave for stress and mental issues. The £5 billion package is intended to make teaching ‘an attractive, fulfilling profession’, but seems like a small rejoinder to the pressures on teachers which is leaving many disillusioned or leaving the profession.

Last month the headteacher of a primary school in Northamptonshire proposed to adopt a four-and-a-half-day week to prevent staff ‘burn out’. The tyranny of exam grades, the narrow EBacc curriculum and a sector operating with 80 per cent of the staff it needs, compound the stresses of a rewarding, but ultimately challenging job.

The proposition of rewarding long service with time away from work seems slightly perverse if there is little reward in doing the job itself. If a love of learning leads you into teaching, it follows that you would want to continue that learning in your career and there is plenty of evidence that educators are ambitious for development.

A recent report by TeachFirst found that 49 per cent of classroom teachers would be interested in taking up a leadership position in the future; 64 per cent of middle leaders said they would be interested in taking on a more senior position. However, over half of teachers say they spend no more than a few hours developing the skills they need, including 40 per cent of teachers who say they have not time at all away from their usual work developing leadership skills.

Commonly in schools teaching staff have five days a year to spend on their continuous professional development, but at XP School in Doncaster, they have 15 because, their Chief Executive Gwyn ap Harri says, ‘We can.’

The teachers at XP School use a project-based approach to teaching and design expeditions around a guiding question. An expedition might involve outward bound trips, visits to museums or heritage centres or working with local employers or community organisations. It means teachers need to deploy a range of skills such as project management, leadership and communication beyond the classroom.

Head of School, Martin Said, joined XP School four years ago and says:

‘It’s hard work, but I feel incredibly blessed and lucky and I’ve learned so much. We have high expectations of the students and we have high expectations of each other.’

Gwyn ap Harri says he looks for ‘character and heart’ when recruiting. The idea of ‘what’s good for our kids is good for us’ is reflected in the three month induction for new staff which includes a ‘taster’ of an expedition such as spending four days camping.

Investment in staff development is part of the holistic philosophy of the school. Gwyn says:

‘Teachers should be experts in learning, so we are always learning how to do our craft better.’

While a sabbatical from work would appeal to most of us, as an incentive to remain in an increasingly stressful work environment with diminishing autonomy and opportunity for learning and development, it seems rather paltry. How about investing £5billion in skills development and learning opportunities for teachers? Work placements or ‘externships’ can help to relate subject specialisms to the world of work, enriching lessons and enabling teachers to give students better insight into careers.

A carrot on a very long stick is a psychologically simplistic inducement to entice people into a complex, demanding and cerebral profession. Perhaps we should be ensuring that teaching is a career which can offer self-determination, character growth, skills and knowledge enhancement and appropriately recognises that progression.