Tags: Continuing Professional Development | CPD Coordinator | CPD partnerships | CPD provision

Soile Pietikäinen and Peter Winbourne of London South Bank University reveal how participant voice and reflexive learning in a school-based MA are contributing to positive impact.

The school-based MA in Education

In this project we have found that a truly school-based MA programme can be a powerful catalyst for impact through reflexive studying. The school-based route MA was developed over the last four years through collaboration between the Education Department at London South Bank University (LSBU), the London Borough of Southwark and partner schools. Currently four state secondary schools host the course and the 57 participants come from seven schools. All MA sessions are held at schools at times most suitable for participants. Also course administration is school-based, including everything from enrolment to handing in course work.

Participants are backed by a School-Based Support Framework agreed with school management in consultation with prospective participants. This framework recognises the value and extent of the work that participants do in their schools and makes explicit how this is to be legitimised, encouraged and supported. The school also pays course fees.

The MA held its first annual evaluation conference in September 2004, where representatives from all the partners discussed the MA and together produced a bid for further funding. It was also agreed that an internal impact evaluation research should be carried out.

Impact evaluation The impact evaluation was carried out during 2005 by one of the visiting lecturers on the programme. It involved interviews and discussions with participants, tutors and school managers, as well as scrutiny of a sample of course work, existing course evaluation forms and the course documentation.

Adopting an open-ended qualitative viewpoint we expected the concept of impact to develop during the project. We expected to find evidence regarding teachers’ reflexive learning and changes in practice. We also anticipated that evidence about children’s experiences might emerge indirectly. We did not set out to look for evidence of rising academic standards within this small project.


Teachers’ reflexive learning

Virtually all participants demonstrated reflexive thinking in their coursework and impact evaluation interviews. This may have been in relation to their own current work in the classroom, wider issues at the school, or personal experiences. We give some examples below.

A deputy headteacher talking about linking the MA studies to the school development plan (SDP): ‘I don’t think we did a particularly good job there… I should have made a more detailed analysis of our school development plan.’

Deputy Head, male

An experienced teacher describes how the MA has changed the way he sees his pupils: ‘I’m… asking myself “Why are these kids doing that?” There is always a reason for how a child behaves and that is not always the obvious reason.’

Experienced teacher, male

Changing practice All participants carry out small action research projects for essay writing and gather portfolio evidence of how they implement ideas from MA studies in their work at the school. These assignment activities were seen as key in achieving impact as: ‘Only when we actually need to do the research [for assignments] we are questioning the classroom practice.’

Junior teacher, female

Interviewed participants would agree that changes in practice have happened on the individual level: ‘It has enhanced my teaching. It has given me ideas about adding things and … I have started to look at those things… that are perhaps less effective and try some different ideas.’ Senior management team

member, female

However, demonstrable changes happen also at the collective level of a department or the whole school. At one school portfolio work by a head of year led the whole school in establishing a school council to address the school development need identified by Ofsted regarding student voice. The council is now in its second year; it continues to be critically monitored and is the focus of an MA dissertation. In another school: ‘….colleagues took onboard specific issues, for example… the use of ICT in teaching mathematics. I myself as a senior manager… did more whole school projects. For example the shortened two-year Key Stage 3.’ Senior management team member, male

In addition, three new closely linked forms of impact emerged from the data: access, learning community and voice.

Access For many teachers access to lessons was key to studying for a further qualification. The practicality of studying within the school with university staff working on site was seen as a major impact factor, as they would not have been able to attend sessions based at university. ‘[the best thing has been the] organisation of the course, the convenience of having lessons at your own school.’

Class teacher, male

Also access to the support of a professional community was important: ‘I have thought of doing an MA on my own, but this has been great: being able to discuss on a daily basis the things I’m coming up against.’

Experienced teacher, female

Learning community
Several participants felt that studying on a traditional MA course would have been isolating. On the contrary, the school-based model offered access to the support of a professional community. Indeed, the MA and school communities have appeared to be strongly mutually constitutive.

The school management openly endorses the MA as an investment in its staff, clearly empowering the participants to discuss ideas emerging from the MA. These ideas were developed further in informal conversations and in school meetings. Participants judged these features of the school-based programme to be very important not only for impact at all levels, but also for their personal satisfaction in sharing new ideas at work.

It was felt that learning communities had emerged. Indeed, participants at two of the schools felt it to be significant that their students regularly witnessed their teachers engaged in study, overhearing their conversations in the corridor and joining publicly in celebrating their success when they were presented with certificates in assembly. They believed that their public participation in the MA ‘models the value of learning’ and ‘reinforces the idea of the school as a learning community’.

Voice The horizontal structure within the MA seems to have enabled a more democratic use of teacher voice. This was described in the anonymous evaluation feedback forms.

‘[It’s] been brilliant, and just sharing ideas about education. It has made us talk about what we are all doing.’

‘Conversations have involved a whole range of [school] staff and have taken on what seems to be a new, more focused dimension.’

‘Experienced and junior teachers reflect together on the issues discussed in sessions.’

The MA staff team observed that increasing voice, while highly desirable, can be problematic. When previously quiet people become more vocal, this can expose power structures within the workplace; sometimes dominant personalities may feel the need to defend their positions.

Impact on MA staff team Gradually the impact evaluation became more and more part of the MA team’s own reflexive practice. The interview questions were designed to invite criticism and to convey the message that we wanted to hear frank talking rather than have a PR exercise. One thing that we believe helped to elicit honest feedback was the interviewer’s role as someone detached, yet part of the MA. The researcher was not an MA unit tutor but an hourly paid lecturer. Perhaps as a result of this, a confessional element started to emerge within the individual and group conversations. People were becoming increasingly open about how they actually study and what they really thought about the MA units. The confessional element meant a new challenge: these seemed to be the most sincere accounts of participants’ perceptions of our work. Sometimes it was clear that we had not managed to get through our messages or that our messages had been misinterpreted.

At a human level, such feedback can be painful. We felt this was a crucial moment in the impact evaluation process and wanted to react positively to the issues exposed. Immediate action was taken to address the problems and make improvements. This was clearly appreciated by participants and school managers. As a result the commitment to impact was enhanced.

Children’s experiences Children’s experiences were more apparent in the new wave of evidence participants started to send us. Also, children are featuring more strongly in the most recent portfolio work. Here is an example of how central both staff voice and children’s voice are for impact. This is a head of Year 7 talking about her first action research project for the MA. ‘The results of my questionnaire were discussed at length by the pupils who took part and new ideas about the school were formulated. Their confidence and self-esteem is clear as their point of view is presented this way and taken seriously. Our canteen staff are celebrating the fact that they are the top reason why our pupils are “happy” at [school] and are planning a poster campaign to tell everyone. No doubt Year 7 pupils will get an even better service from now on!’

Head of year, female

Benign cycle The impact evaluation project has led to a continuing process of identifying existing impact and, we believe, generating more impact. Indeed, it has made discussion of impact a central feature of the school-based MA. For example, when asked about how she was linking her assignments to her school’s SDP one teacher became aware that these links were weak. As a consequence she talked to the head of school, who called the whole MA study group at the school to discuss together how to link MA study more closely with the SDP. After three meetings they produced a document about the development strategy and handed it in to the MA course director. The level of debate was elevated within that group and MA participants received stronger support from senior management than before. However, it led to fears that the MA study group might be exploited. At the second evaluation conference in September 2005 the process of impact took new directions with an increasing sense of ownership of the MA within the participating schools. When improvements to course documentation were discussed, instead of expecting the course director to deliver them, some senior school managers volunteered to write the new materials. A culture of the MA seems to be emerging which is largely based on participant voice. We feel optimistic that this is leading to a long-term change that may well prove to endure in time, especially as systemic change would appear to be happening at the participating schools. The MA and the reflexive processes and learning communities it encourages are becoming part of the schools’ identities. First cohorts are transmitting the emerging culture of the MA to new cohorts that include other school staff members; for example, learning coordinators, classroom assistants and laboratory technicians are starting their MAs. Participants from early cohorts who have moved to senior posts in new schools are keen to start new groups.

The process of how impact happens is crucial for evaluation. Therefore a snapshot is not, in our view, the best way of studying impact. From our experience we argue that the best way to uncover impact of an MA is to make discussing and recording it a core a part of reflexive studying.

‘The impact and importance this school-based study can have on our work was not initially felt but became apparent as I was interviewed about the course.’
Head of year, female

In this way the impact evaluation has started a process of revealing and producing impact. The evidence develops over several months. Systemic change is happening and a culture of open debate is emerging. A flexible research design was crucial, without that we would have missed the best part of our evidence of impact.

Reflexive learning
Reflexive learning occurs when all participants are able to interrogate change, learn something new from it and use this knowledge to modify activity. This helps to make sense of learning and to develop the professional voice.

This article first appeared in CPD Update – Feb 2006

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