Masters of their own destiny

7th March 2008 at 00:00
Teachers must be given the freedom to take degrees in their own time - not under deadline

Finland is generally held to be the country with the world's best education system. It focuses above all else on the quality and status of its teachers. Helsinki does not introduce initiative after initiative. Rather, it provides the conditions for achieving high-quality education. Masters degrees for all Finnish teachers is part and parcel of this approach.

Finland's pre-eminence at the top of the international league tables has meant that policymakers from other countries have beaten a path to its door, eager to cherry-pick success.

One such cherry appears in Ed Balls's recently published Children's Plan. It proposes "a masters-level profession with a masters-level qualification, building on recent performance management measures". While the plan asserts rightly that schools are at the centre of their communities, there are just five paragraphs on the future for teachers. The one thing the plan does not do is inspire with a vision for the teaching profession for the 21st-century; a vision which Finland most certainly has.

These are not conditions for encouraging teachers to take on a new qualification, to put it mildly. Simply telling them that they have to acquire a masters degree within a fixed period of time could be greeted with hostility by a profession already overburdened.

Such a situation is entirely avoidable.

First, surely it is time, after nearly 11 years of Labour governments with education as their top priority, for a strategy to be developed for the future of the teaching profession? The M-level has to be about enhancing teachers' professional self-confidence, autonomy and expertise. Its structure and approach should demonstrate that the Government trusts teachers.

The potential for creating the conditions for an autonomous teaching profession are already there. The continuing professional development (CPD) programmes of teacher organisations, such as the National Union of Teachers (NUT), have demonstrated that it is entirely feasible for unions to offer national communities of learning for teachers.

Teachers do not have a sense that their own innovations in pedagogy are valued or fed into a continuously evolving bank of national practice. Another idea which could be adopted, therefore, is the development of a teacher-owned pedagogic bank.

The enormous learning potential for teachers through teacher exchanges, sabbaticals and scholarships, both at home and abroad, needs also to be tapped. The Government could make available, through Voluntary Service Overseas and the British Council, a range of opportunities for experienced teachers to work in developing countries for a year. A scholarship programme could include the allocation of scholarships for professional development overseas.

Second, any idea that the new M-level can be introduced by using the classic, centralised roll out delivery model, should be dropped. The M-level should be optional and a genuine entitlement for all teachers. It should be seen as one part of a range of professional development provision tailored to teachers' needs.

The Government needs to work with teachers to establish a model for the qualification which creates the conditions for teacher ownership. To gain acceptance, it should be developed in partnership with the teaching profession and its representatives.

Teachers' entitlement to CPD needs practical substance. Every teacher should receive annually a personal professional development grant whose allocation is not constrained by a single prescribed model. All teachers should be entitled to regular sabbaticals to conduct research into effective classroom practice. After all, it is 37 years since the James Report on teachers' professional development proposed that all teachers should be entitled to a termly sabbatical, once every seven years, to conduct their own research.

Third, it needs to be understood that CPD can only be effective if its relevance and purpose is owned and understood. All the evidence from the NUT's own research scholarships, including the late lamented best practice research scholarships, is that research-based inquiry into classroom practice not only contributes positively to the body of knowledge about pedagogy, but their teachers taking part in it see it as powerful incentive to remain in teaching.

In the NUT's partnerships with Cambridge University and the General Teaching Council's Teacher Learning Academy, teachers establish their own inquiries which are mentored. The NUT's Learning Circles partnership with Cambridge is accredited through elective modules which offer 60 credits. Those credits also stand in their own right as qualifications. Setting a time limit on achieving the M-level not only undermines the potential for flexibility in accredited learning, but it also raises a big question mark over whether the time and space for the new qualification can be integrated without bringing excessive workload into teachers' daily lives. The M-level has to replace, not add to, the unnecessary work currently expected of teachers.

If the M-level is to be rooted in teaching and learning, then it should not come laden with criteria which have to be met before teachers receive the M-level grants. The last thing teachers need is a new qualification so hedged around with boxes that have to be ticked against every government priority, that the potential for innovation is closed down and the qualification gets suffocated in bureaucracy.

These are some ideas which could underpin support from teachers. Ed Balls' recent comment that he has listened to teachers who want greater recognition for their professionalism is positive. The potential is there, but there are also dangers. Of course, there are many teachers who are already taking masters degrees voluntarily. But, unless the conditions are in place to create a genuine entitlement for all teachers, they will feel that the new M-level is just another damn thing and treat it accordingly.

John Bangs, Head of education at the National Union of Teachers.

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