Do teachers need to take Masters?

The Government wants teachers to take Masters. A nice idea, but tricky to pull off, finds Geraldine Hackett

Thursday 10 July 2008 00:00

Louise Northey, an English teacher in London, has just completed a Masters degree in teaching her subject, but does not think most teachers will want to follow her example.

"There is so much to do, if you are a teacher or a head of department, that it is very hard to fit in a Masters," she says. "I had wanted to do it in two years, but it has taken me three."

If she is right, Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, needs to worry. The Government plans to encourage teachers to do a Masters in teaching and learning, viewing this as an important step towards improving schools. The argument is that better-educated teachers lead to better-taught pupils – and thus to a world-class system.

The inspiration for a teaching profession with Masters degrees comes from Finland, the country that scores highest in international comparisons. Balls has not said that teachers will be required to do the qualification, but the Government has said that it wants teaching to become a Masters-level profession.

The Masters degree that Northey took at King's College London is different to the one that ministers have in mind. The full details of their plan are not yet available – and the first trial has now been delayed until 2009. But the Government has made clear that it wants a qualification done mainly in schools, and designed to improve the quality of lessons, rather than something academic. Teachers in the first five years of their career will get Government funding for the course.

Northey, 29, is acting head of English at Twyford School, a large Church of England comprehensive in Acton, and has been appointed head of department at her new school, Raine's Foundation in east London. She wanted to do a Masters partly for career reasons – she may eventually go into teacher training – and partly because she wanted to improve her teaching. "It was a way of getting back into thinking about the subject and about the best way to teach it," she says.

She found it a struggle, however, to combine studying with work. "It took up five or six hours a week. Some people do it over two years, but I did it over three. You have to be disciplined. Sometimes you will have a deadline for a dissertation that falls just as you have a ton of course-work to mark."

Though the degree did succeed in helping her re-evaluate her own teaching, Northey says that she can't see the average teacher doing it, because of the amount of time it takes. "If it is it not related to pay, teachers may see it as a chore," she says. "If they are made to do it, there will be a lot of unhappy people. They will see it as a lack of faith in the profession."

It will be hard to gauge the views of teachers until more information is available about the Goverment's plan, but a survey at Cumbria University by the education consultancy ESCalate suggests that student teachers there have positive views about the Masters. Seventy per cent of the respondents felt that a Masters would improve their job prospects, and 66 per cent that it was likely to contribute to the practice of teaching.

As might be expected, the teacher unions are in favour of the proposed Masters, but the National Association of Head Teachers believes that the Government is targeting the wrong group. "Newly qualified teachers spend all their time teaching and we don't want to add a further burden," says Mick Brookes, the union's general secretary. "It is already the case that 40 per cent of teachers drop out of the profession in the first two to four years. We think it should be for more established teachers. It will give that essential underpinning to their teaching."

Professor John Howson, a teacher recruitment expert, sees a need for training beyond the PGCE. "We are moving from a very experienced teaching profession, with the bulk of teachers over 40, to a younger workforce as the baby boomers retire," he says. "There is a need for professional development in the early years, but it needs to be finely targeted to the needs of the teacher in the classroom. I suspect that teachers won't think there is an incentive to do it unless it is tied to pay or to performance."

Among teacher trainers, enthusiasm for a more widespread take-up of Masters qualifications is balanced against a wariness of the plans as set out so far. Debra Myhill, head of the school of education and lifelong learning at Exeter University, is in favour of encouraging teachers to do more study. "Most teachers now come in with a one-year PGCE, and you can't learn everything in a year," she says.

Myhill wants a Masters qualification that goes further than improving the day-to-day practice of teachers. "I think it is important that the content is not too prescribed," she says. "If a Masters is purely on practice, that will be limiting. It needs to be about deep learning that allows teachers to think about how they change things. We don't want this Masters to be held in lower regard than the existing academic Masters."

Bethan Marshall, a senior lecturer in English education at King's College London, also has reservations about the Government's plans, but is keen to see more teachers taking a Masters degree. She believes that it will encourage teachers to reflect more on what they are doing, but points out that because it will be school-based, the teaching will be done by teachers who do not have a Masters themselves. Though many teachers will want to do the degree, others will not, she says. "There will be those who think it is a load of codswallop. They will think, 'I know how to teach and I'm not going to have anyone telling me how to do it.'"

Three to five per cent of teachers are already studying for a Masters. James Rogers, executive director of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers, thinks that the Masters plan is worthwhile, but warns that the Government must be careful neither to make it too inflexible nor to have it undermine the wide range of existing Masters degrees.

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