The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Agents of change

A new two-year Masters-level programme in Transformative Learning and Teaching offers a unique approach to initial teacher education

The first cohort of students of the new MSc in Transformative Learning and Teaching (MScTLT) from the University of Edinburgh will graduate in a few months’ time. They will be Scotland’s first specialist teachers of the Broad General Education (BGE), able to teach across the primary–secondary transition. Teaching Scotland met with some of its students, and those involved in delivering the course, to find out more.

What makes this programme unique?

New routes

The MScTLT is one of 18 new routes into teaching that have been developed by universities in Scotland and accredited by GTC Scotland since 2016.

These new routes were developed in response to the Scottish Government’s calls for new and innovative routes into teaching that would, among other things, help to tackle teacher shortages.

The MScTLT responds to the need for “innovative new ways of developing teachers of the future” and supports the growing emphasis on Masters-level teacher education. Some of its students will also graduate with subject specialist knowledge in hard to fill subject areas.

“In what ways is it different is a question we’re frequently asked by potential students and employers,” says Programme Director for the new Masters, Dr Aileen Kennedy. “There are some structural and some philosophical answers to that.”

A new conceptualisation of site-based learning

While programmes of initial teacher education usually provide sets of courses followed by blocks of student placement, on the MScTLT students are engaged in university and site-based learning concurrently. The idea is that this provides students with a much more natural way to understand theory and practice. “So whenever students hear anything new theoretically, they are able to consider that in practice, and they’re bringing their experiences from practice into what they’re learning at university,” says Dr Kennedy.

Current MScTLT student Emma says: “Being in schools every week for two days a week keeps us in touch with what’s happening in our school. And we’re in the same school for months at a time. It’s connecting our university experience to our school experience.”

Students are also out in schools in “clusters” in order to develop a stronger sense of the community in which the pupils they’re working with live and learn.

This cluster approach is unique in Scotland and facilitated by the university’s partnership authorities and by cluster tutors – headteachers, deputes, principal teachers or classroom teachers – who are all based in schools. The cluster tutors have a direct link with the university and have taken part in the university’s Supporting Teaching Learning in and Through Practice (STLitP) course. The students’ class teacher mentors may also complete the course, which is aimed at ensuring high-quality and effective support for student teachers, and provides a space for school- and university-based teacher educators to develop shared understandings.

Jean Laird, Professional Development Officer at Fife Council, is involved with supporting the programme in the authority and helps to deliver the STLitP course with the university. She explains that this model of delivery is innovative in its investment in cluster tutors and teacher mentors, and in the way it values the professionalism of the students from the outset. She says: “A direct relationship between schools and universities, which the government and education policy is looking to be strengthened, is actually being enacted through this programme.”

Transition-qualified teachers

What is also unique about this MSc is that its students graduate as teachers across the BGE phase, rather than as either primary or secondary teachers. Crucially it qualifies graduates to teach across transitions – from nursery to S3 as generalists or from P5 to S6 as subject specialists. The aim of the programme is not, however, to produce teachers who are both a primary teacher and a secondary teacher. “The programme has a holistic approach to education where the first consideration is the child,” explains one of its current students, Kat.

Another student, Annette, explains: “It’s critical working in today’s classroom that we have a wider understanding of where our children are, where they’ve come from, and where they’re going to. Although my placement was primarily based in primary schools, secondary placement was so valuable in terms of understanding the secondary environment.”

Fellow student Emma feels there is a “massive need for better communication” from “both sides” (primary and secondary). Emma felt that on one of her student placements there were a lot of negative views from “both sides” towards each other. “Secondary teachers feeling, ‘oh they’re giving us children who still can’t read’, and primaries saying ‘oh the secondaries aren’t providing any child-centred provision and support’. For me, it’s highlighted the need for transition teachers.”

And student teacher Sarah says she feels that “each side” can help develop skills in each other. “It was helpful on secondary school placement to see the changes in pedagogy that the restriction of 50-minute class time brings. You have to be a really quite passionate and hardworking teacher to think about how you can creatively achieve something different in that timeframe. Whereas in primary school, yes everything is structured but if a lesson runs over by 10 minutes because the class is in a fantastic discussion, you can manage that flexibly.”

Centrality of transformative teaching and professionally activist teachers

Moving to the more philosophical angle of what makes the programme unique, students on the course are very clear that they were attracted by its political and activist agenda.

“We set out to try to attract a more diverse student population, and one that is more reflective of our pupil population,” says Dr Kennedy. “When we interview potential students, not only do we need to know that they’ve got a sense of what they’re getting into and their commitment, but we are also looking to judge the extent to which they see teaching as socially and politically important.”

While social justice is no doubt important for many programmes of initial teacher education, Dr Kennedy says that “for us it sits at the centre and forefront”. She adds: “Everything the students do is seen through a perspective of social justice with the aim of being what we’re calling, ‘transformative teachers’ adopting activist professional stances.”

MScTLT student Rachel says: “The really good thing about this course is that it makes you question why things are the way they are. So you don’t just accept education and the education system the way it is. You understand the political and socioeconomic reasons why things have happened – and you can begin to question and change things.”

Jean Laird said the passion and professionalism of the student teachers as a distinct cohort was readily apparent. “I noticed very quickly how interested the students are in education work. They’re talking about things like social justice and understand how that relates to their practice. They’re very ready to engage in professional dialogue about teaching, learning and professionalism from this early stage of their learning process.

“The course is possibly attracting a more mature person, who perhaps already has those types of attitudes and approaches; however, I think that some of the course content encourages the students to engage more with that side of their professionalism.”

Rather than condensing the programme into a shorter timeframe, as some of the new routes into teaching have done, the MScTLT has actually extended the period of initial teacher education by including Masters level learning over two years. This was a definite appeal for some of its students who wanted to have extra time to prepare themselves for a career in teaching.

Where will the new students teach?

Dr Kennedy hypothesises: “In the future, I imagine we’ll have all sorts of ways of working. Some of the students will simply work in primary or as a subject specialist in secondary for most of their career but they will be much, much better informed of what comes before and after. However, we are already beginning to see ways in which the teachers can work in new and innovative ways, and potentially change structures.”

“The work that some of the generalists were doing in the secondary schools last year in site-based learning was just so diverse it was quite remarkable. It really opened up discussions with the schools involved around how they would and could see our students being employed.”

For example, some of the secondaries were using the generalist pathway students to support with literacy and numeracy among young people who were not at the level they needed to be to access the mainstream secondary curriculum. Some schools may take a “nurture class approach” and have classes of young people who, for chunks of their timetable, work in a class with the BGE teacher. “The BGE teacher is able to provide general and interdisciplinary learning, but also that consistency of relationship that some of our learners need,” explains Dr Kennedy.

And the driver for change is not just coming from the university, says Dr Kennedy, but from schools themselves. “Perhaps with the movement of our students, who are committed to this way of working, there may be possibilities to really change structures in such a way that we are able to do the BGE that was intended.”

Jean Laird sees a real role for the student teachers in her authority. “It’s a really exciting opportunity to have teachers who can work across the Broad General Education. It will be interesting to follow them and see what roles they slot into on their probation. We’re looking in Fife to support that and to work with them to see what happens next and what’s possible.”

As for the students, they are excited about new roles being developed according to the needs of the schools, and which will best utilise the skills that they can offer.