Improvement by degrees for Welsh education
Politicians on both sides of the border know the importance of improving teaching quality as they seek to boost standards in schools. But while the coalition government in England prefers to restrict entry to the profession to high-flying graduates, in Wales teachers are being sent back to class.
Welsh education minister Leighton Andrews has announced details of free master's degree courses for all newly qualified teachers (NQTs) as part of his plan to drag the country up the international school league tables. The Master's in Educational Practice (MEP) programme will put Wales at the forefront of teacher development, Mr Andrews said.
The idea resurrects one of the key policies of the last Labour administration in Westminster to require all new teachers to complete a master's qualification, which was swiftly dropped after education secretary Michael Gove took office in 2010.
Mr Andrews will not make it compulsory for teachers to complete the extra study, but is urging all NQTs to take up the offer. The course will be fully funded by the Welsh government and accredited by Cardiff University.
The government says the three-year modular course is based around the "everyday experiences" encountered by teachers and will help those new to the profession to develop and apply current educational thinking to improve their own classroom practice.
Although the degree focuses on Mr Andrews' three key priorities of literacy, numeracy and reducing the impact of poverty on attainment, it also covers aspects of teaching that NQTs have said they need more support with, such as leadership, behaviour management and child development.
While it has been welcomed in principle by most educationalists, some teaching unions are concerned over possible workload pressures.
"This will mean extra work for teachers," said Owen Hathway, policy officer for NUT Cymru. "Being a fully fledged teacher is a difficult job anyway, but to do a master's degree at the same time will add more pressure to NQTs."
Those behind the programme say they do not want to overload teachers. Extra resources will be available and experienced teachers will act as mentors to support and coach candidates.
While most of the course will be based around classroom experience, schools will be expected to release teachers to attend taught elements. This will be fully funded in the first year, but funding for the second and third years has yet to be decided. Mr Hathway said this could have huge cost implications for schools, many of which are already struggling to balance their budgets.
Mr Andrews is confident the programme will have a positive impact on educational standards and the teaching profession in Wales. "We have created the MEP by working closely with the profession and listening to what they feel NQTs need," he said.
Professor Amanda Coffey, deputy director of the Cardiff School of Social Sciences, who is leading on the MEP for Cardiff University, said the programme would provide a "unique opportunity" for NQTs. "NQTs and their schools will benefit from a rich and supportive programme, informed by the very latest research evidence," she added.
Despite his concerns, Mr Hathway was hopeful that the programme would enhance the status of teaching as a profession. "What it could potentially do is increase the profile and perception of teaching and tempt more people to consider it as a career," he said.
But with no extra pay for graduates and the possibility of regional pay in the public sector, there are fears that graduates could be tempted to move to higher paying authorities or schools in England.
"While we wouldn't want to stop teachers advancing their career, we don't want to see a brain drain across the border," Mr Hathway said. "We may have to look at how you ensure teachers with higher qualifications stay here if regional pay becomes a reality."
Back to class
The Master's in Educational Practice (MEP) programme will be available to all NQTs who started their induction year in September 2012.
Applicants must have a degree and a minimum two-day-a-week teaching contract at a school in Wales.
The three-year course will be fully funded by the Welsh government.
Much of the MEP will be based around classroom experience, but schools will be expected to release teachers for taught modules at regional learning events.
NQTs will be supported by mentors, either experienced teachers or individuals with relevant experience in educational practice.
There is no dissertation: the final module takes the form of an extended piece of work that focuses on classroom-based experience.
Being a teacher is a difficult job ... to do a master's degree at the same time will add more pressure.