Research shows that teachers who volunteer abroad for VSO are far more likely to stay on in teaching once they return home. Teacher burn-out in the UK is so great that over half of all newly trained teachers drop out in their first three years.
Now three local education authorities have decided to pilot formalised VSO sabbatical projects as a way of aiding recruitment and retention. VSO plans to provide a bespoke service for the authorities. The charity will manage the teacher volunteer programme, monitor its effects and feed back the benefits to the education authorities.
It is also in talks with the Department of Education and Skills with the aim of getting the VSO volunteer teaching programme recognised as a "positive part of the solution of long-term teacher retention".
Steve Grix, head of education at London inner city borough Tower Hamlets, the first to pilot the scheme, said: "Releasing people for a couple of years may sound odd when you're dealing with teaching shortages, but not if it means that they can then spend more time in the teaching profession. You have to look at the long-term view."
Two other education authorities, in Glasgow and Birmingham, which won high praise from Ofsted last year, have signed up to test the VSO scheme. They hope that the benefits will extend beyond improving teacher morale. Inner city teachers learning about overseas cultures would help with integration and diversity awareness, for example.
"Fifty six per cent of our students in Tower Hamlets are from the Bangladeshi community,
said Grix. "So we would obviously encourage any teachers going on sabbatical to go to Bangladesh."
There was also a "moral" reason for LEAs to encourage teachers to volunteer abroad, he said - many of them were filling the teaching gap by recruiting staff from the very countries where VSO teacher volunteers are sent, such as India and South Africa. "Shouldn't we be putting something back into these developing countries? It's wrong if you keep taking teachers from countries who need them more than us,
A similar formalised VSO programme for the NHS met with huge interest when it was launched six years ago. However, demand was so great - 80 NHS Trusts signed up - that VSO did not have the resources to manage the relationship. It plans to limit the teacher programme to a smaller scale for the first five years.