The masters plan that's falling apart

13th March 2009 at 00:00
Problems for the new MA in teaching

Scheduled to be up and running within months, the new MA in teaching and learning is in trouble before it even starts.

It was meant to herald a new era where teaching was a more respected, high-level profession - but with less than six months to go until the new masters in teaching and learning is supposed to be up and running, delays are threatening its launch.

Widespread problems in the development of the postgraduate qualification - a cornerstone of the Government's education policies - are leaving many questioning the wisdom of attempting to push it through. There are calls for a postponement.

Those responsible for running the new course have said they are worried at the lack of information about funding and uncertainties about student numbers before it starts later this year.

The new masters, only available at first to newly qualified teachers in National Challenge schools, starts in the North West in September and supposedly in National Challenge schools in other areas in January 2010. But so far only three areas - the North East, South West and East Midlands - have been awarded contracts by the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA). In another worrying development, those in all the other areas have been asked to re-submit their bids, which is going to delay matters.

Universities still have no idea how many students to expect. Additionally, there are fears that the unwillingness of some struggling schools to employ NQTs will mean places on the courses will go unfilled.

It usually takes a year for courses to be validated by universities. That process cannot start until the Government agrees funding for the qualification, which should be in May. Ominously, there has been no word yet about subsidies for other masters courses in education, so lecturers are worried the MTL could lead to their demise.

Lecturers on the course say much work needs to be done to educate schools about it before it starts so that teachers who are already working hard to improve their work do not see it as another burden.

Academics have warned that the universities that submitted their tenders in January had to do so without seeing the course framework, which wasn't published until earlier this month - just because of the way the proposals were rushed through.

"There are a number of aspects of the planning process that haven't been thought out, and without a funding model it is extremely difficult to get on with the validation process," said Janet Ainley, who runs the course at Leicester University.

"We run our own masters programmes, too, and get funding subsidies from the TDA but it's not clear if they have taken a decision on whether that will continue, which again makes it difficult to plan.

"Schools don't know how many NQTs they will have this September. In our area, because of advice from local authorities, many schools are not looking to appoint them so there could be very few available to do this course."

Professor Roger Woods, chair of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers (Ucet), said many lecturers preparing to run the course were finding it hard to set up partnerships with schools because of the simple lack of a list of National Challenge schools.

He also said the limited amount of time given to universities to submit plans was the reason some consortiums were unsuccessful. They were now re- bidding but will still have to start the MTL at the same time as those who have already been given permission and are further ahead in their preparations. This includes the West Midlands consortium, the universities of Wolverhampton, Worcester, Birmingham, Keele, Staffordshire, Newman College and Birmingham City - where Professor Woods works.

"There was time pressure on us and our bid should have been better but we had to rush," he said. "Operating as a consortium takes a lot of time. But it's also been very useful working with other universities."

Professor Woods said Ucet was a "real fan" of the course and the impact it will have on continuing professional development. But he insisted the organisation was concerned the TDA was "screwing it up" by trying to get the qualification up and running so quickly. He also said more needed to be done to get schools on board.

"We are working with 70 National Challenge secondaries in our area and the feedback from them about the course has been patchy so far - some are much more enthusiastic than others," Professor Woods said. "Some are seeing how the qualification can get them out of the lower achieving situation they are in."

Lecturers in the North West, who have to start the course in just six months, say they also have much work to do before then. Neil Simco, dean of education for Cumbria University, said: "A lot needs to be done on the ground still and we need to reach an agreement with the TDA about the numbers of students allocated and what the funding rules are. In the North West, this is part of a long-term, sustainable plan. It's for the long game and we are not wanting to find quick fixes. It's really important we get the product right.

"Everybody supports the concept of a masters-level qualification for teachers. We were keen to get involved for this reason, and because it's a major initiative and we want to support government policy.

"As it's such a major initiative it's not unreasonable there are delays and everybody understands there is a lot of work to do."

John Howson, of Education Data Surveys, which examines the supply and demand of teachers, said the length of time allocated to the introduction of the masters was "naive at best".

"The whole process has been bogged down in bureaucracy, and no thought seems to have been given to the fact this will make it much more expensive to employ NQTs, if you add up the 10 per cent of time they already spend out of the classroom to this," he said.

A TDA spokesman said: "Part of the Government's strategy for school improvement is to prioritise the development of teachers who are working in the most challenging schools. MTL will deliver effective, structured professional development in the early stages of a teacher's career, focused on improving standards, and should help in the recruitment and retention of staff to these schools."

Indications of funding for each university are expected by May, which means frantic work to recruit students and validate courses between then and September.

John Bangs, head of education for the NUT, called for a "pause" in the introduction of the course to give more time for universities and schools to prepare.

"If it wasn't for the fact everyone thinks it's the strategically right thing to do and for the goodwill of universities and teaching organisations, we wouldn't have got this far. We need to stop and take stock of what needs to be done," he said.

Mr Bangs was worried the introduction of the masters will put pressure on newly qualified teachers during an already stressful year.

"The key question is how time for study will be allocated to them - the last thing we want is for it to be bolted on at the end of the school day," he said.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "If this is to be a degree to which all teachers are encouraged to aspire, it has to be of the highest quality, and this cannot be produced in the short timescale the Government has set. A year's extension would give the Government, the TDA, the universities and the profession time to plan a degree that will be of sufficient value to make it worth the time that teachers will need to put in."

How it will work

The masters course will be free to teachers and Pounds 30 million a year is being set aside to pay for their course fees. It is not clear if this will cover the cost of cover when teachers are studying.

The Training and Development Agency for Schools will initially target teachers in the first five years of their careers, but it will eventually be open to all teachers.

Teachers will be given some time out of class to study, but will be expected to do the rest of the work in their own time.

Experienced teachers will be trained and act as coaches in school to those studying for the MTL. The contract for their training has not yet been given to any organisation. They will be unpaid, but part of their work might count as credits towards a future masters qualification.

Secondary school teachers spend only around 3 per cent of their time on professional development; 45 per cent think it isn't a highly valued activity in their school, according to an official workload survey.

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