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Making the top grade by degrees

The Open University's modular courses offer busy teachers a chance to further their careers, Douglas Blane reports

Being a teacher, a wife and a mother can be a hard juggling act at the best of times. Throw in the extra demands of studying to be a chartered teacher and all those balls in the air could easily come crashing down.

This was the critical factor in Ruth Murnane's decision to join the first group of 46 students on the Open University's new chartered teacher programme, launched in September. "It would have to be an evening course if I was doing it at one of the local universities. But I'm not free on the same evening every week. I have three children who are all busy, and I'm the taxi service."

The course appealed to the Bridge of Weir Primary teacher for other reasons too. "Through friends and relatives who had studied with the OU, I knew it was an established provider of distance learning that worked.

"I have had a fascination with the Open University since I was at school, because one of my teachers got her degree through it. So when I saw they were doing the chartered teacher modules, I was keen to take part.

"The materials are excellent. They take you through every stage and each task has a time allocation. It is very precise and well constructed."

Even so, the return to studying after 20 years as a teacher was not easy, says Mrs Murnane. "I really enjoyed reading all the books, so in that sense it was lovely going back to being a student. But I found it difficult to write concisely enough; the word length was a challenge.

"Doing it all on computer was also new to me. I had the computer skills but I used to do all my thinking on bits of paper. I've learnt it's a lot quicker if you do your thinking on the computer."

So far Mrs Murnane has been unable to attend the non-compulsory day of tutorials in each module. But despite never having met her tutor or her fellow students, she has not felt isolated. "The tutor is at the end of the phone, though I prefer using email. Our tutor group is very useful, because you can post comments or questions online and get replies.

"I really like that aspect, because you're talking to teachers from Aberdeen, the islands, all over Scotland, and everybody's experience is different."

As well as mutual support and encouragement, the tutor group provides practical assistance, says Mrs Murnane. "This was especially valuable in preparing the first assignment of the first module, a critical review of the literature. We were given a long list of books we could read, and I think we were feeling a bit swamped. So we started posting references, sharing ideas on the books we found particularly useful."

Isolation is minimised, she explains, not just through contact with students on the course but also teachers in the staffroom at Bridge of Weir Primary, particularly the four on the chartered teacher programme. "That has made a huge difference, even if they are using different providers and are all at different stages.

"They give you reassurance. If you've read something in the literature, you can discuss with colleagues in the same situation whether it would work at this school. And they save you time by suggesting things that might not occur to you for a while."

Having successfully completed module 1, Mrs Murnane is awaiting the assessment of her second and final assignment in module 2. Like every other teacher in Scotland, she regrets having to pay for each module herself. But unlike many, she does not regard this as a bad investment.

"For pound;1,200 you can do two modules in a year. But you get that back in one year of teaching, and the increment in salary goes on through your pensionable life.

"My main reason for starting out on the chartered teacher programme was to keep up professionally, and because I like change and new challenges.

"If you think of it as two modules at a time, it's not so daunting."

It does take planning to realise the full benefits of distance learning and keep all the balls in the air, says Mrs Murnane. "I look through the eight to 10 topics in each module before I start, to identify the things that need long spells of concentration and the activities that can be fitted into shorter periods.

"The course is very thought-provoking, so I find I'm thinking about it when I'm driving, washing up, walking the dog. Then when I sit down at the computer, it all becomes clear." She smiles: "Well, clearer."

The GTC website lists accredited providers of the chartered teacher programme, of the eight modules of the Open University course begins twice a year, in October and February.

Paisley University offers an entirely online chartered teacher programme

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