Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

A masters voice


A coordinated postgraduate study programme can be a flexible, cost-effective option for continuing professional development that results in more confident teachers, says Alan Howson.

At Patchway Community College in Bristol, a quarter of the teachers are enrolled on masters level courses under the school's postgraduate professional development programme. Patchway teachers undertaking a masters programme are not merely looking for promotion and progression; they are intelligent adults wanting to learn more about how to become better teachers. For us that means improved all-round school performance in the long run.

While our postgraduate professional development programme (PPD) isn't a 'quick fix', it does give them a competitive advantage by improving confidence and personal practice. They develop a rich understanding of how children learn, how to be effective in the classroom and how to improve their own subject knowledge.

Patchway began its PPD five years ago, initially as a cost-effective method of providing quality professional development for staff which would allow them to network with colleagues from university and other schools.

A framework was created to enable teachers to work towards a masters qualification by amassing credits in bite-sized units. We discovered that the MA in Education provided by University of West England (UWE) in collaboration with South Gloucestershire Council allowed a very flexible approach to studying.

The masters programme provided continuity of experience for staff and a wide range of study methods; it was also possible to gain accreditation for prior learning. Each member of staff is treated individually by the university in terms of enrolment and course choice. They see the MA as achievable and can take breaks between modules if they wish.

Aid to recruitment

Teachers develop their own curriculum areas to make the masters relevant to their daily roles and we support them through their accredited units.

I am only interested in CPD that improves teachers' personal practice. You can't coerce people - you have to work supportively and collaboratively; teachers respect our flexibility and it's a powerful motivator for recruitment and retention. Partly as a result of this, we have no vacancies at Patchway.

Some of the masters programme modules are taught and involve attendance at a series of sessions together with assignments. Others are based on a portfolio approach, accrediting work that teachers carry out as part of their school duties. There is only a minimal impact on cover as meetings take place during contact periods and after school.

Our relationship with UWE is crucial to our CPD programme. As a designated partner school, the masters programme is free, supported by the TDA's PPD subsidy.

Our teachers attend sessions at UWE's Frenchay campus while we host its PGCE and ITT student placements. We hope in the future that even more staff will be encouraged to undertake PPD with UWE and other providers. Some teachers, for example, have followed the Bath Spa middle leadership course which is hosted at Patchway.

Many teachers choose to carry out an internal project focusing on one of seven themes linked to our college development programme. Progress is monitored regularly and support is made available. We are hoping these projects will receive formal recognition, encouraging more staff to seek external accreditation. The relationship with institutes of higher education is pivotal to our future plans for more teachers to undertake masters level courses.

Never too late

It isn't all straightforward, of course. Some teachers haven't been into an HE institution for years while others worry that it's too late in life for them to start studying again; some fear they'll be intimidated by the university experience, others are put off by the thought of evening study.

By agreeing with UWE for a senior member of staff to act as the tutor for action enquiries, some staff have needed fewer evening sessions and days out of school. I have also been prepared to allocate some training days as 'twilight' sessions in which staff are given time to work on their assignments.

UWE is only a short drive from our college and runs taught modules as evening twilight sessions so no cover is needed. We also host an MA taught module for another university on our premises.

Once enrolled and actively working on taught modules, very few staff drop out. All teachers have to complete an individual personal professional development project each year - those choosing not to seek external university-based accreditation complete a less-formal assignment which has internal accreditation. We are looking at having this recognised through the TDA or another suitable body.

Staff morale

We continue to work to support staff in the learning process wherever possible; we have expanded our staff section in the college library and have an embryonic peer mentoring PPD network of 'people you can go to'.

For me, the benefits of PPD to Patchway are clear; one of the most important is seeing masters programme teachers share their findings. They hold informal feedback sessions with colleagues, both within their own departments and beyond. This contributes greatly to improvement across the entire school and the knock-on effect on staff morale is huge. I would advise other heads considering PPD to:

  • Be proactive in negotiating with HEIs to get the best deal for your school; there can be a tendency to accept what is given but we've found universities to be extremely flexible.

  • Motivate, support and encourage - rather than coerce - teachers to take up PPD.

  • Ensure that findings and experiences from teachers on the PPD programme are actively shared and disseminated across all staff.

Richer learning experience

Because we are so passionate about PPD, I asked our masters programme teachers how they would describe PPD to other schools and teachers. Their responses are unanimously positive.

They say it's an opportunity to:

  • network with like-minded professionals

  • be a better, more confident teacher

  • solve real-life teaching challenges

  • progress into different and possibly bigger roles

Most importantly, it gives our students a richer learning experience; it's also good for the school's reputation to have an active staff CPD programme.

At Patchway, the overall knock-on effect of PPD for the whole school is considerable - it inspires, builds confidence and motivates teachers to create leaders of best practice. Our teachers share experiences and face all classroom challenges with confidence.

Alan Howson was headteacher of Patchway Community College, Bristol, an 11-18 school with 1,100 pupils on roll. He is now head of Chiswick Community School in London.

How it works in practice

Emily Bottell came to Patchway as an NQT in 2003 and is now a head of year and an English teacher. She is currently undertaking a masters focussing on special educational needs in a secondary school and her dissertation is focused on raising boys' achievement.

Her confidence is growing as a result of sharing ideas and experiences with SEN co-ordinators from across the region; she has been praised highly in school for her assemblies and the way she relates to students.

Stephanie Thomas is an acting head of department at Patchway and has just completed a three-year Masters in Education at UWE.

Central to her studies was researching and writing a dissertation based on a particular personal interest and the priorities of the college's development plan; as the college's gifted and talented coordinator, she chose higher order thinking skills. This important piece of work has not only developed her own knowledge and classroom practice but has been of enormous benefit to her department and the wider school.

Stephanie has been able to apply her experience by coaching colleagues both in and beyond her department and, in the process, has become a professional tutor for education students at Bristol University. Last year, she ran an INSET day for the whole school to share her knowledge and practice with us.

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