Master plans

18th November 1994 at 00:00
Ian Lawrence traces the rise of the master's degree for management-minded teachers and assesses the different courses on offer. Many teachers embarked last month on courses that can lead to a master's degree in educational management. What lies in store for them and what do they hope to get out of it all?

In England alone 49 universities and four colleges are offering such courses and have been eagerly looking for clients. Yet the establishment of the master's degree as a prerequisite for career opportunities in senior management in schools has taken place almost unnoticed. It has occurred against a confusing background in which Government policies have encouraged the notion of self-managing schools; Government attitudes have been hostile to the whole concept of higher degrees in the social sciences; universities have searched for new forms of fee-income, including alternatives to full-time post-graduate courses; and teachers have sought to enhance their prospects of job security and promotion through further qualifications.

This process has taken place in a piecemeal fashion. Universities have independently developed entrepreneurial skills in an attempt to respond to perceived market forces. Client-demand is used as the prime indicator in course evaluation and attempts to appraise the long-term professional impact of such courses have generally been regarded as premature or irrelevant. If the health of the educational system as a whole can be said to depend on the quality of continuous professional development, then the contribution to this process by the master's programmes is surely worthy of a much closer analysis.

The long-founded assumption that almost any further advanced study was likely to provide appropriate levels of intellectual challenge for teachers gave way in the 1960s to the belief that coherent work in the fields of educational psychology, philosophy, sociology, history or administration was professionally ad- vantageous. This approach was further modified in the 1970s, when curriculum studies became the leading attrac- tion in higher degree work. By the early 1980s the study of administration had been widened to include both policy and management studies and by the beginning of the l990s educational management courses had become the dominant master's degree component.

This process of change has also been accompanied by the growth of the taught master's degree and the relative decline of the master's degree by research. From a national perspective, it can be argued that an uneasy balance now exists at master's level between the intention to prepare teachers for management responsibilities and to prepare them in the necessary skills demanded in research methodologies.

There is also a dilemma about the nature of management specialisation and the nature of academic reflection which courses often struggle to resolve. In the past 10 years management development programmes in education have moved from 'learning about' to 'learning how to'. The whole issue of management competence in the master's programme has become caught in a web of confusion. Some universities continue to take the view that competence is a lower- order concept than understanding and emphasise reflection over action. This may lead to situations in which we fail to recognise that existing models of change management are inadequate for dealing with anything more than small-scale innovations in (relatively) small institutions.

Several tensions and some contradictions are revealed by universities in their attitudes to admission regulations. The tensions arise from the conflict between a university's desire to: * provide courses responding to market forces; * secure viable numbers for all its modules; * maintain high entry thresholds for its post-graduate courses ('academic excellence'); * increase its fee income from clients; * attract only teachers or lecturers aiming at senior management posts who are already junior or middle managers; * provide courses for aspiring but inexperienced managers.

This leads to entry demands that vary from qualified teacher status plus two years' teaching experience - to at least an upper-second-class honours degree, plus PGCE, plus a diploma containing research methodologies, plus five years' teaching experience, plus middle-management experience.

There is evidence of a considerable willingness to take account of teachers' previous experience. Credit transfer from other universities, accreditation of prior learning (APL), accreditation of prior and experiential learning (APEL) and credit accumulation and transfer (CAT) schemes are in widespread use. Nevertheless, universities that provide discrete courses, or modular courses with a strong developmental structure, insist on retaining an overall curriculum logic in their programmes which might otherwise be disturbed by random accreditation.

Among English universities (including the Open University) offering educational management as a major component, about 50 per cent of the courses lead to the award of an MA, 20 per cent to an MEd, 20 per cent to an MSc and 10 per cent to an MBA. The only taught MPhil is at the Cambridge Department. It is true to say that most MAs and MEds provide management courses within a general modular provision and that most MSc and MBA courses are discrete rather than modular, but this is by no means universally true. There is some evidence that teachers now prefer the title MA to MEd, and there are growing indications that the MSc (Management Education) or the MBA are even more welcome. There is some residual feeling that the MA and MSc are by their nature more theoretical than the more practical, skills-based MEds and MBAs but I have found little evidence for such an assumption.

Although a quarter of universities still offer full-time master's courses, part-time attendance is by far the more significant pattern for serving teachers. Indeed the gradual drying up of financial support for full-time attendance has become a significant feature of university planning in this field. Moreover, the standard format of a single entry point in the year has been abandoned by several universities and modular courses that can be irregularly interrupted have been increasing. Variable starting dates may be an important factor for teachers who have pressure points in the school year. Some universities (Bath, Keele, Leeds Metropolitan, Middlesex, Nottingham, Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam and Surrey) have followed the Open University in the provision of distance-learning courses. Some teach at outstations (Bath, Exeter, Plymouth, York) and some provide intensive blocks of teaching (Bath, East London, Keele, Leeds Metropolitan, Nottingham, Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam, Southampton and Surrey) in addition to more regular patterns of attendance. Many universities use the phrase 'twilight zone' to describe the period from 4pm to 8pm when most of their courses are available. Concealed within such provision, however, there are a number of options that would require absence from school for day-time attendance.

The question of course length may be important to candidates. Although one of the advantages of the modular part-time course is its flexibility, the fact that the majority of master's courses can be completed in two years of part-time study may influence an applicant's choice of university.

There are five main patterns: one year of taught modules plus one year of occasional tuition for a dissertation; two years of taught modules including dissertation tuition in the second year; two years of taught modules, with a supplementary completion time for a dissertation; two years of taught modules and a complete third year devoted to tutorial support for a dissertation; and three years of taught modules.

There are two types of courses on offer: the discrete course, where only management (and research) elements are available, and the modular course, which allows the student to select options from a menu. However, not all modular courses allow candidates to select sufficient options in management education to justify the description of a management pathway. In some cases this is because a university is not sufficiently well-resourced to provide all its management options annually. Indeed prospective clients would be well advised to read the small print carefully if they require a course that has management elements throughout. Warnings about staff shortages and non-viability occur in several brochures.

Many of the master's courses emphasise general concepts such as 'the development of understanding and critical reflection' within the highly contextualised environment of the teacher's own workplace. Not all universities are clear about their assessment procedures in their initial documentation. In some cases where the curriculum is 'negotiable', so, too, is the assessment. Course-work assessment is the most common form, although written papers (including open-book) are found at Aston, City, Hull, London (Institute and Goldsmiths), Open, Oxford, Reading and Southampton. The quantity of course work (excluding dissertations) varies from as little as l0,000 words to as much as 32,000, with the average about 20,000. The dissertation usually requires 15,000-20,000 words but can range from l0,000-50,000. Candidates who undertake dissertations at the higher end of this scale may have been better advised to aim for an MPhil by research. Indeed, the emphasis on long pieces of written work, whether they are in the traditional discursive academic form of the dissertation or the management report encouraged by the MBA (and several MEdMAMSc) courses, is very strong. The assumptions that underpin this assessment demand may require unpacking if we are to reach any coherent conclusions in the evaluation of management courses.

The restrictions on government funding and the development of local management and grant-maintained budgeting has led to both institutions and individual applicants having to take careful account of the cost of courses. For MAMEdMSc courses there is a possible range of Pounds 570 to Pounds 4, 250 for a complete part-time programme. MBA courses that specifically include educational management range from Pounds 2,980 to Pounds 16,450.

Course evaluation has become entwined in marketing strategies. Many course documents include favourable appraisals from successful students and tend to suggest that the completion of a management master's degree leads to automatic promotion. Smiling photographs accompany confirmation in some brochures that candidates have been appointed to senior management teams even before they have been awarded their new degrees.

There is also a strong popular view that the MBA is worth every penny of its vastly inflated fees as a reliable key to preferment. It may be only a matter of time before the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) crosses the Atlantic and becomes the standard entry qualification for headships.

It is possible, however, that such marketing strategies take no account of the long-term effectiveness of their clients. Longitudinal profiles of former graduates is sadly lacking in the research programmes of English universities. Indeed, there may be too many variables to make such investigations useful or too much fear that the results might raise some uncomfortable questions. Bandwagonning has always been a popular pastime.

Course evaluation by clients on the one hand, and strategic national planning of management development on the other, are not the same thing.

Perhaps the eventual establishment of a General Teaching Council, now apparently attracting all-party support in England, will replace the current trend towards short-term opportunism with a more thorough-going, nationally conceived, professional management strategy.

Ian Lawrence is editor of "Education Tomorrow" to be published on November 24 in Cassell's Management Education series.

What a master's course may include. * Management skills * Human resource (personnel) management * Financial management * Marketing * Educational and management law * Curriculum management * Strategic management * Information systems * Technological change * Leadership * Quality management * Performance indicators * International perspectives * Policy formation and analysis * Organisation theory * Public-sector management * Management of change * Change-agent strategies.

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