Page last updated at 23:32 GMT, Friday, 26 June 2009 00:32 UK

Masters of the classroom?

By Mike Baker

Teacher and whiteboard
Enrolment for the MTL begins next January in some areas

Should teaching be a masters-level profession?

Would it raise the status of the profession and, more importantly, the quality of teaching if all teachers were required to have a postgraduate qualification?

The government clearly thinks so.

Recent announcements have come close to making a postgraduate qualification compulsory.

Schools Secretary Ed Balls, said: "Our aim is that every teacher over time should have the new Masters in Teaching and Learning."

The new qualification, the MTL, is already in preparation.

The government hopes it will become the education equivalent of the MBA - the must-have qualification for all ambitious staff in business and commerce.

New teachers who start their first job this September in north-west England, or in "challenging" schools elsewhere in the country, will be the first cohort eligible for the new postgraduate qualification, with enrolment starting in January 2010.

Scepticism

But is this just another hurdle for teachers to leap?

Will it overload newly-qualified teachers in their toughest years in the job, just as they are struggling to cope with maintaining classroom discipline?

Judging by teacher blogs there is a lot of scepticism in the country's staffrooms.

They foresee a lot of extra work with little benefit to show for it.

Some of those doubts are shared by leading academics.

Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education, said he is fearful that the notion of a masters-only profession has been imported from Finland, which is the current Holy Grail of education systems.

He has a phrase for the recent tendency to attempt to transplant key features of successful foreign school systems.

He calls it "policy tourism" and says it is dangerous because models of education work where they are but do not necessarily work elsewhere.

He also argues that there is no research evidence to show that gaining a Masters makes teachers any better at their job.

However, he adds, that is hardly surprising as current Masters degrees in education have not been designed to make teachers better in the classroom.

They are academic exercises, which involve writing dissertations rather than practising teaching methods.

So he believes the MTL could be a success if it is practical and classroom-based with the specific aim of improving teaching.

However, he argues that current approaches to in-service training for teachers do not necessarily inspire confidence.

He has worked out that, in the 20 years since the Education Reform Act, teachers have now each had 100 "Baker days".

He wonders whether there is anything to suggest that all these training days have had much impact on improving teaching.

No pay rise

The Training and Development Agency for Schools has been charged with making the MTL work.

It too believes the new qualification should be practical and school-based.

Mike Baker
The MTL remains a big task for teachers who are in the early years of a new and demanding job
Mike Baker

It expects the bulk of the MTL to take place in schools, with new teachers each assigned a more experienced member of staff to be their mentor or coach.

In this way, it hopes that the MTL will be a means of extra support through the tough early years of teaching, rather than an extra burden.

There will be academic input too, with every MTL student assigned a tutor from a university education department.

There is no pay rise for teachers who gain the MTL but, equally, there is no cost either.

Although Masters degrees usually cost several thousand pounds in fees, the MTL will be free.

It is also assumed that teachers will, on average, take three years to complete the MTL, so they can adapt the workload to suit their circumstances.

Nevertheless, the MTL remains a big task for teachers who are in the early years of a new and demanding job.

There is a risk that, although not formally compulsory, the MTL will be seen as essential for any teacher wanting to gain promotion and a higher salary.

Motivation

There is another danger too.

Fashions in teaching methods come and go. Not all are successful.

Usually, though, the damage is limited because not everyone teaches in the same way at the same time, as each generation has been trained in different methods.

There is a risk that certain teaching methodologies will become the pattern for all MTL students.

If all new teachers are being taught the same government-endorsed teaching method, this could become the new orthodoxy, just like the numeracy and literacy hours.

If it works, fine. But if it does not, it could be disastrous, as everyone will be doing the wrong thing.

Hopefully, this will be avoided. The MTL is intended to be as much about teachers reflecting on, and evaluating, their own teaching methods as being taught a particular pedagogy.

It could raise teaching standards. It could raise the motivation and enthusiasm of teachers.

But it will depend on whether teachers feel it is something they have chosen to do, as and when they are ready, rather than feeling under pressure to do it within the first five years of qualifying.



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