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Theory in practice

Offering teaching staff the chance to study for an MA has many worthwhile benefits, says Joanna Ebner

At the beginning of my second year in my second headship, I realised the need to focus on a well-managed and challenging professional development programme for my staff. Doing odd courses here and there is not a robust way of addressing CPD and I decided to provide my staff with the opportunity to study for a masters in education.

This would need to be on site, to be relevant to the teachers and feed into the development of our practice. I wanted to be able to challenge staff intellectually so that they would feel extended and enriched by their continuing learning. Evidence-based practice may be buzzwords at the moment, but to me it is important to understand how theory connects to practice and that theory should be rooted firmly in the classroom. At the time of planning I strongly felt that an MA would be beneficial, not only to staff in terms of the intellectual wellbeing of the school, but also for the recruitment and retention of new staff.

Thomas’s is a cluster of five London day schools and I knew that there would be an interested group of potential students within our teaching body. I wanted to find a course that would fit in with the busy working lives of teachers and I began my own research to find the best fit with our schools. I was looking for something that would be bespoke and could be tailor-made to suit our needs. Trying to get to university after a day’s teaching is tricky. I knew that I would need to base the training at my school, offer the teachers supper and also make a financial contribution to fees. If we wish to attract and retain the very best teachers, then we need to invest in them.

Trying to get to university after a day’s teaching is tricky

 The University of Roehampton was chosen to be our partner provider and Thomas’ agreed to pay 60 percent of course fees. Presentations were made in full staff meetings, informing staff of the opportunity to do an MA. It certainly was not compulsory because an MA, even with support from the school, is a major commitment and should not be undertaken lightly. Our first cohort of students started in September 2014.

Reflecting at the end of the first academic year, the MA has proven to be a very worthwhile and enjoyable experience. Research projects so far have included differentiation in mathematics in year four, the practical application of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset and an assessment of the value of homework in primary school. All these are areas of current debate and enable my staff to be up-to-date in the educational world. Most importantly, it has enabled participating staff to feedback to the SLT how such issues relate specifically to our practice.

The spin-offs have also been significant: participating staff have given presentations on their research; we are preparing a conference for parents outlining the projects we are undertaking and we are aiming to run a conference across all our schools, disseminating the MA research and publishing the results.

The programme has had a beneficial impact on both our schools and the University of Roehampton. Our staff  have said that they feel empowered when talking to parents about their children as they can back up discussions with relevant and sound educational research. The University of Roehampton is seeking to extend this pilot project and roll out similar MA courses to other institutions and we have established a partnership that has resulted in me to sitting on the strategic board for partnerships at the university.

All too often teachers’ professional development relies upon the availability of third-party provision that frequently takes the form of short-term quick fixes that lack continuity, consistency and academic rigour. At times such CPD courses can be called pseudo-academic at best. In order for education to enhance its professional standing it is crucial that schools begin to take control of CPD, making it more focused and robust by providing a recognised, academic and evidence-based route for staff development.

Joanna Ebner is headmistress of Thomas’s Kensington W: www.thomas-s.co.uk/kensington-home

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