All NQTs will now be able to study for a Master’s level qualification. Cliff Jones puts forward three statements to provoke debate on this topic

Now that government has decided to make it possible for all new teachers to participate in Master’s programmes it becomes necessary to think about what it all means. A start would be to get rid of old-fashioned perceptions of Master’s degrees as some sort of entry test for a tiny number of carefully selected applicants to a secret academic society.

It is also crucial, in order to extract the maximum from this recent change of policy, that teachers and related professionals play a full part in influencing and giving meaning to professional learning; especially, in this case, postgraduate professional development (PPD). What follows are three statements, neither exhaustive nor definitive, to stimulate some wide and useful thinking. It is merely one contribution to the thinking that needs to take place. CPD Update wants to hear what you think.

Statement one
Master’s degrees (and, for that matter, doctorates) in education must be constructed from and legitimated by:

1. Interaction between stakeholders
This includes all those that have an interest in the educational enterprise, especially those participating in Master’s and doctoral programmes. Professional Master’s degrees and doctorates can only happen if the experience, expertise, values and interests of participants become part of the equation.

2. What we can learn by employing a number of perspectives
Such as the regulatory/official; the academic/theoretical; and the practical or personal/professional perspectives. There are others, but the major point here is that one-dimensional examination of professional life is inadequate.

3. A strong belief that teachers and related professionals should be making sense of their professional learning at least at Master’s level

It has often been argued that awards at this level and above are professionally appropriate; an even stronger point to be made is that regardless of the level of award, the thinking brought to bear during professional learning should be serious, systematic, sustained and rigorous.

4. Building professional learning partnerships or communities that cross the divisions between public and private sectors; between different phases; between different professional groups; and between different initiatives

Partnerships may be thinking of how to compete with one another in a negative sense but there is more to be gained from working together. If all PPD partnerships, for example, worked together positively, irrespective of sector, phase or group, the benefits would be widespread, considerable and highly significant. This is not about profit making in the sense of extracting value; nor is it about seeking to outbid rivals; it is about working together to multiply and spread value.

5. Building professional learning communities that extend beyond perceived academic boundaries

At times it has been the habit to draw a kind of boundary around academia: to think of it as something removed from ordinary reality. But academic values of rigorous questioning must always be fully tested in the field. If theory can shine a light upon practice then practice can also help to challenge and form theory.

6. Building learning communities that also extend across socio-political, religious, cultural, industrial and geographical boundaries

Since Tony Blair announced 10 years ago that his main policy objective was ‘education, education, education’ he has been followed by almost every other party leader saying something of the same. Instead, they should have been saying ‘society, society, society’. What really matters is how we live together. The professional learning of people engaged in education should model a fair, humane and considerate approach to life. Rather than imposing uniformity, setting sterile targets and expecting conformity we should agree common values around which we are allowed to establish a rich variety of approaches to professional learning. And even those values should be subject to review. Learning communities learn from the learning that they help to make happen.

7. Academic, intellectual and professional curiosity

If a Master’s or doctoral programme fails to foster curiosity it should be abandoned before it does too much damage.

Statement two

The threats to a Master’s-level profession include the following:

1. Domination by one stakeholder at the expense of others

This would run counter to present trends towards collaboration and could be counterproductive. Professional learning partnerships can have leaders who take on the responsibility for most of the work but they will not be effective if they ignore the interests of fellow partners.

2. Shortened vision horizons

People who cannot see very far are often risk averse and do not invest. Under pressure many adopt a ‘get through till Friday’ approach and look no further ahead. This is natural. But it does nothing to enhance self and public perceptions of teachers as professionals and of schools and colleges as learning organisations.

3. Static and sterile notions of quality

Uniformity and compliance have for too long been presented as evidence of good performance.

4. Impoverishment of the professional learning experience

In England, in particular, education has been beset by target setting and over inspection. This has had its effect upon professional learning. Karl Marx would no doubt have identified what has been happening as alienation: a process of de-professionalising teachers by turning them into instruments of policy with their minds focused upon implementation rather than creation. 

5. The use of ‘impact’ as a killer concept

If not careful this can create short-term, narrow and simplistic approaches to professional learning.

6. A need for dedicated high-quality infrastructure
Convincing senior management in HE that administrators are as important as academics is not always easy, but partnerships and communities can be fragile and they need to be managed.

7. The issue of entitlement versus elitist approaches

Another way of putting this is that there is a difference between volunteers and conscripts, and when an entitlement becomes a requirement there is often a loss of motivation.

8. Fragility of funding arrangements

The market for postgraduate qualifications in education has never been convinced that they should be priced at, for example, the same as an MBA; and neither has government when it decides the level of funding. As a result, the income from grants and fees is so small that the reluctance of senior managers in HE to be involved in this enterprise often has to be overcome by appeals to other values. 

9. Fragility of any enterprise that seeks to cross boundaries

Extended schools, the remodelled workforce and collaboration with FE, for example, require the crossing of boundaries. While this means more opportunity for learning, it also means there is greater stress upon the network holding together a professional learning community.

Statement three

We need to attempt the following:

1. Engagement with, rather than reaction to, our environment

The collective power of professionals thinking critically will help to develop ideas at all levels and provide the courage to advocate them.

2. Contribute to the language of stakeholders

It might be a start if we can increase the acceptance of phrases such as ‘critical reflection’. It might also help if we could get politicians to understand the language of their own policies. For example, examination results are merely ‘output’. They are not ‘outcomes’. They only become outcomes when they are evaluated for what they demonstrate in terms of, say, the Every Child Matters agenda.

3. Build an understanding of the concept of ‘impact’ as rich and varied

One of the most noticeable effects of postgraduate professional development (PPD) has been the transformation of professionals when they realise that they are assessed as critical sense-makers rather than as memorisers of other peoples’ knowledge. And once a professional becomes a critical sense-maker they will no longer settle for simple-minded definitions of impact. 

4. Decide if we are on the entitlement or the elitist side

The elitist side is easier to handle and a great deal cheaper but that is not sufficient reason for choosing it. And these days almost everyone working in a university to design and deliver any kind of programme that involves teachers and related professionals will be a qualified teacher with a commitment to good-quality professional learning for all.

5. Build and spread an understanding of the values of critical professional learning

It is possible to capture the attention of senior policy makers and reduce their fear of professional learning that is wide ranging and critically reflective, and that might generate valuable, unexpected evidence for unintended outcomes.

6. Take into account that new entrants to the profession are arriving with some ‘M-level’ credit as part of their qualifications

There must be an agreed approach to this. 

7. Ensure that a number of initiatives are linked to postgraduate programmes

There are already protocols of agreement that enable transfer of credit between Master’s awards and a range of national initiatives and more are being developed. How soon will it be before the work being done to develop the new National Curriculum and the new approaches to assessment become the subject of critical examination by teachers and related professionals taking part in Master’s-level programmes?

CPD Update welcomes comments on this topic. What are your views on M-level qualifications?