Academic or obscure, instrumental or professionally liberating? CPD Update editor Cliff Jones asks what we can expect the new Master’s degrees for all teachers to look like

Government has recently been seized by a fit of educational sloganising about the professional learning of teachers. But, as usual, they are not sure what their own slogans mean so they have followed current practice and given the job of setting out the terms for the construction of detailed policy to a private company.

The company that has been asked to produce the consultation paper on the so-called ‘new’ Master’s degrees for teachers is McKinsey, authors of How the World’s Best Performing School Systems Come Out on Top.

Two slogans

At the moment there are two slogans being used by government about the intention in the Children’s Plan that teaching will become a Master’s level profession. Slogan number one is ‘raising the status of teachers’. It is repeatedly pointed out that all teachers in Finland have a Master’s degree. Because this is perceived to demonstrate high status our teachers must have the same if we are to become ‘world class’. But the route to the top is not so simple. There are huge differences between the approach to teaching in Finland and in the UK (particularly in England). These factors (including classes of less than half the UK size and no SATs) are ignored as though they have no impact upon performance. And despite references to ‘MBAs for teachers’ made when government talks about the new degrees it is hardly credible that HEIs providing Master’s degrees for the teaching profession (probably with schools as partners) will be funded at anything near the fee level normal for a business Master’s. The proposed ‘new’ Master’s degrees will, as usual, be delivered on the cheap. And the worry is that they will be regarded by government as a simple instrument of policy (see next slogan). Slogan number two is ‘closing the gap’ (they partly mean the drop in performance levels in secondary schools). We know that at this stage adolescence affects how children see themselves; how they interact with teachers, their parents and each other; and how they engage with what schools and our assessment system have to offer. We should not be surprised that it affects results. It is quite reasonable to expect to address the issue of performance within a Master’s programme and to gain useful understanding of the dynamics involved in learning; but it is unreasonable to tell teachers that once they have Master’s degrees they will become entirely responsible for all of the effects of nature and society. Expecting to press a single lever to bring about a direct, simple, improvement in examination results is foolish. The situation is made worse by constant reference to the requirement that schools, children and teachers must climb above the average. We cannot all be in the top half of the distribution curve at the same time. And it is worth remembering that the norms of performance determining the shape of the curve were inserted from the start by politicians without testing the criteria. Blame for failing to exceed these norms is, however, firmly placed on the shoulders of schools, teachers and now, probably, universities. Government also wishes to close the gaps between the UK and the league leaders in OECD educational statistical tables (have a look at and search for educational statistics).These tables provide worldwide educational comparisons but they should be contextualised and qualified extremely carefully. Government, however, believes in them, draws conclusions from them that lead to policy and would like us all to pursue these educational Oscars.

Models of Master’s degrees
My worry is that government has in mind only two models of Master’s degree for teachers. From their own out-of-date perceptions of university life they have constructed a picture that I call the Obscure Academic Master’s degree, one believed to: disregard the professionalism of teachers; lecture at them; make theory inaccessible; and lock teachers in a library until they come out with lots and lots of essays which no one wants to read. It is a caricature that distorts the reality of Master’s level work for teachers.

Their second model I call the Instrumental Official Master’s degree. It captures professionals and makes them instruments of policy. Look at what government has done to initial teacher education. Universities, with schools as their partners, must comply or die with this model. The emphasis here is upon standards, targets, value for money, competition, inspection, avoidance of failure and implementing official models of teaching, learning and assessment. If we are not careful we could end up with a very narrow notion of performance review tied to a compulsory Master’s degree which concentrates upon measuring what teachers are told or persuaded to measure. My preferred model I call the Socially Critical Master’s. This liberates the professional; acknowledges the experience, expertise, values, interests and concerns of teachers; engages with and constructs theory; and engages with and constructs policy. The agenda for Every Child Matters fits here. In order to demonstrate the achievement of the intended outcomes of ECM schools and teachers must be critical partners in society; not processors of children who signal success by the grade of quality stamped on the product. Should governments be frightened of teachers asking questions? Is theory really so scary? This is education that we are talking about: not the simplistic inculcation of orthodoxy. Anyone who believes in democracy should welcome a socially critical teaching profession: one that that can challenge and be challenged by theory; examine its own practice from different perspectives; engage with and help to construct public policy rather than simply implement it; take some risks; and learn from mistakes.

Into which category, I wonder, will the McKinsey’s Master’s fit?