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This guest blog is from Teach First teacher Usman Mohammed who spent last week on a summer placement at the RSA

The outpourings of #Govegone sentiments from swathes of the nation’s teachers seem to have woven a rather comfortable “better her than Gove” safety net for Nicky Morgan. This much needed support should help with her primary aims ahead of the elections: to pacify the righteous medieval styled anger of the education mob and to convince them that new policies and pronouncements designed in appreciation of teachers lay just over the horizon.

She has a particular job on her hands, especially in relation to the hard-core sceptics and teachers at more challenging schools. Having completed my first year as a Teach First participant and experienced one of these challenging Inner-London schools, I feel I have seen a good example of what that scorched earth scepticism looks like.

Improving struggling schools (many of which are now located outside of major cities) essentially boils down to sourcing and relocating the best teachers to the most challenging environments. But, as educational “Twitter-garch” Sam Freedman succinctly addresses in his analysis of the hardest problems educational policy has to address, this is an extremely difficult hurdle to jump using only the tools currently within the government’s remit.

Here at the RSA, as part of work we are doing around the teacher licensing scheme and giving teachers a ‘license to create’, we are currently considering both the possibilities and pitfalls of creating a sabbatical offer for teachers in challenging schools. Whilst not an obvious vote-winner, the idea of a sabbatical might just offer a promising tributary for improving teaching and learning across the nation.

Let’s be clear, by sabbatical we don’t mean giving Ms Maths or Mr English time off to go to Borneo and nurse a baby earthworm back to health. Rather, the idea is to provide them with time to undertake some research related to the needs of the school, to directly address and improve the needs of a particular department or ideally to get involved in a community project linked with the context of the school. The sabbatical could be to a different school, or to an organisation which supports young people in different ways, whether from the cultural, business or voluntary sectors.

Teaching sabbaticals could, in theory, support both the retention and re-allocation of high quality experienced teachers. Many difficult schools tend to lose vibrant, middle management teachers who typically fall within the 8 – 15 year experience bracket. They either leave to frolic in the often more polite and leafy environments of higher achieving schools, or they leave the teaching profession all together, often taking a wealth of communication and management experience with them. The idea is that a sabbatical may help to reinvigorate and reinvest teachers in the many troubled areas surrounding a child’s life, not least their education.

In terms of the reallocation of good teachers, the sabbatical could be a useful part of a larger incentive. The decision for a teacher to uproot and move to a potentially deprived and isolated town for the benefit of the children should be encouraged and rewarded. That could take the form of a wage bonus or an attributed accolade. It could also be the chance to undertake a transition sabbatical; this would be a period of time in which the teacher could prepare or retrain for their new environment in conjunction with the school and others.

Teacher sabbaticals are not new. However previous attempts at a teacher sabbatical programme by New Labour were nebulous and failed to demonstrate the impact required for expansion. Consequent DfE evaluation highlights issues that would require attention for a similar programme to succeed. Such analysis provides several initial issues for us to consider:

  • Logistics and implementation
  • A sabbatical undertaken by an experienced teacher proved to be a logistical nightmare for the department(s) they left behind. Replacement teachers had to be brought in as well establishing new sources of support for any dependent staff causing disruption and tensions to students and staff

    • Lack of quality control
    • The sabbaticals were heavily decentralised so the schemes and extra funding proposed by schools were often bespoke for the member of staff in question. This often resulted in money not being spent wisely and a lack of quality control on the attention and efficacy of the sabbatical on the participating schools.

      Some of these problems can be more easily solved. For example, establishing measures of accountability whereby guidelines and time scales are agreed and set can help to ensure maximum impact. However, problems relating to student and staff disruptions, particularly amidst the backdrop of crumbling policy in challenging schools will require more nuanced solutions.

      The concept of introducing sabbaticals is to ensure that the poorest children receive the richest teaching. Giving teachers a chance to re-energise could be the key to ensuring that they either keep helping their students, or head to those children who need it the most. Having experienced first-hand some of the difficulties of life within the schools gates of challenging schools, something like a teacher sabbatical scheme could be massively beneficial to myself and other teaching colleagues as we enter the next phase in our careers, giving much needed time for reflection, creativity, and opportunities for joint practice development.

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