The ‘super degree’ aiming to enrol ‘activist’ teachers

12th August 2016 at 01:00
Emma Seith explores innovative approaches to initial teacher education as the University of Edinburgh proposes a master’s to ‘break decades of sameness’

“How much you achieve in your life should not be determined by how much your parents earn”, declares the home page of the Teach First website in big, bold letters.

The organisation tempts high-achieving graduates into teaching with the hook that “one great teacher can change a child’s life”.

And despite bad press around whether Teach First adequately prepares teachers for the classroom, how long its graduates stay in the profession and how cost-effective the scheme is, people keep signing up. The number of Teach First recruits has grown from 560 in 2010 to 1,584 last year; about 5 per cent of all trainees in England are part of the scheme. This year, it was ranked at fourth place in The Times’ Top 100 Graduate Employers list, above powerhouses such as the BBC, John Lewis and Goldman Sachs.

Whatever the criticisms, it’s hard to deny that the charity has created a sexy route into teaching – a career that many may have dismissed as run-of-the-mill.

Now, the University of Edinburgh is aiming to use similar tactics in order to tempt high-flying recruits into the profession “who actively want to make a difference” and are ready for a big challenge.

However, while Teach First sends its recruits on a six-week summer school and then trains them on the job, Edinburgh wants to pursue a different approach: putting its post-graduate students through a two-year “super degree” that will prepare them to teach across both primary and secondary.

The master’s qualification, which has the dynamic working title of “MSc in activist learning and teaching”, will “break decades of sameness” in teacher education, according to Dr Rowena Arshad, head of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education.

The university aims to start offering the twoyear master’s in 2017 to 50 recruits, providing it manages to secure General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) accreditation.

The course will qualify graduates to teach as either generalist teachers in nursery to S3, or as subject specialists in P5 to S6. Students will have the choice to specialise in physics, maths, English or computing.

“For decades now, teacher education has been offered in a particular way in Scotland”, Arshad says. “But the world has changed so that in itself makes you think we have to look at the situation.

“The second thing is [Graham] Donaldson [in Teaching Scotland’s Future] called for teaching to become a master’s-level profession, so we are looking to assist the government in that aspiration. Now it’s for the government to think about our attempt to break these decades of sameness.”

Arshad hopes that the opportunity to study at master’s level will entice people into the profession who might not have opted for the PGDE or the four-year undergraduate course.

The qualification’s focus on social justice and sustainability also has the potential to attract a new kind of recruit, she believes.

“We are aware it is a brave and bold title that departs from the norm, but we are trying to signal that we are really interested in graduates who actively want to make a difference, as opposed to aspirationally making a difference.”

The development of the course has been welcomed by the Scottish government, which has challenged Scotland’s initial teacher education institutions to come up with “new and innovative routes to teaching” in a bid to tackle the recruitment crisis plaguing schools. Education secretary John Swinney has given university schools of education until 2 September to submit their proposals.

Call for ‘creative’ solutions

“Basically what the cabinet secretary is saying is ‘You have an opportunity, you have a window, to come up with creative routes in which you are still part’,” says Ken Muir, chief executive of the GTCS.

Professor Donald Gillies, head of the School of Education at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), says that universities do recognise the need for new routes into the profession. But he adds: “We are anxious about the possibility of a School Direct or Teach First model coming if we don’t get our act together. We are conscious that if we can’t satisfy the government that we are able to provide the workforce, they may look elsewhere.”

The government, however, has insisted that it has “no plans to introduce the model of school-based education used in England”. Schools of education are set to meet at the end of this month to finalise their proposals.

At UWS, trainers are looking to expand the Grow Your Own teacher education scheme run in conjunction with Dumfries and Galloway Council into other authorities.

They are also hoping to introduce concurrent degrees that would allow people to train as secondary specialists in four years, instead of five, which have until now been available only at the University of Stirling.

Meanwhile, at the University of Glasgow, educators are suggesting spreading the induction year salary over two years so that people could earn while completing their PGDE.

This might make entering the teaching profession more appealing to career-changers who can’t afford a year with no income, suggests Moyra Boland, deputy head of Glasgow’s School of Education.

Glasgow is also looking at making it easier for students in other faculties to opt for teaching careers (see box, page 17).

Meanwhile, back in Edinburgh, Dr Aileen Kennedy, a senior lecturer in education who is leading the development of the new MSc in activist learning and teaching, says that it will have “a massive focus” on literacy and numeracy. “There is going to be an upfront, in-their-face realisation that these skills are really important in terms of closing the gap,” she adds.

‘Transformative’ teaching

In the past, there has been criticism of the variable amount of time spent on the teaching of literacy at different schools of education. A 2013 Freedom of Information request revealed that while one institution allocated just 20 hours in a four-year degree, others allocated four times as much.

Earlier this year, the Making Maths Count group, set up by the Scottish government to encourage greater enthusiasm for the subject, called for research to be done into the way the different schools of education trained their primary teachers to deliver maths.

Kennedy says: “We don’t want people who quite fancy teaching because it’s a worthy thing to do – we are looking for people who really see it as transformative and politically and socially important.”

There has been some anxiety about the demands the government is making on schools of education but, for Kennedy, the overriding feeling is one of excitement. “We have never been good at taking risks in Scottish education and I think that’s a pity, because to keep on doing the same old thing is more likely to result in damage than to take a calculated risk and move forward,” she says.


‘Education spine’ training option offered to Stem students in Glasgow

Students doing a range of Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at the University of Glasgow will be given the opportunity to take teacher training options twice during the course of their degrees.

If they take up the option – in the second or third year of their course – they will then embark on an “education spine”, alongside their subject specialisms in maths, computing, engineering, physics or chemistry. When they graduate, they will have the qualifications they need to start an induction year as a teacher.

The move is a twist on the concurrent degrees delivered by the University of Stirling, where students study a specialism at the same time as an education qualification. This means that they can qualify in four years instead of five.

The crucial difference with the Glasgow model is that the students targeted have not opted to study education from the outset, widening the potential pool of recruits.

Another approach the university is working on involves students being paid to study the PGDE. This could be achieved by spreading the salary probationers receive in their induction year over two years, according to Moyra Boland, deputy head of the School of Education.

“This makes the PGDE an attractive option to people who cannot afford to not be earning for a year,” she says.

Financial penalty warning over shortage subjects

Universities may lose out financially in the future if they fail to recruit teachers in subjects such as maths and physics. TESS reported last year that one in five places went unfilled on the most popular route into secondary teaching, the one-year PGDE (“Shortage fears intensify as trainee numbers falter”, Insight, 11 December).

In shortage subjects such as maths, almost half the places were not taken up, with universities over-recruiting to other subject areas such as geography, history and modern studies to compensate.

This was “poor for workforce planning”, admits Professor Donald Gillies, head of the University of the West of Scotland’s School of Education.

The government wrote to the Scottish Funding Council in December saying that it should give “serious consideration” to penalties if there was no improvement in under-recruitment to “hard-to-fill subjects” and overrecruitment to other subjects.

“That puts us under a bit of pressure financially because we will lose money if we are not recruiting,” Gillies says. “However, at the moment there are only two routes into the profession and there should be more flexible ways we can work provided there is no risk to quality.”

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