“Teaching and school leadership are highly challenging, complex and intellectually demanding roles,”  says Dr Zoè Robertson, the Director of Teacher Education at the University of Edinburgh and the Deputy Chair of the Scottish Council of Deans of Education. “So why would we not want to invest the time and resource into the ongoing education of the teaching profession?”

It seems a fair question, doesn’t it?

Education might not be the number one priority anymore (assuming it ever was) but it is still of the utmost importance – after all, what matters more than your kids? That being the case, investing in the education system and the people who make it function is a bit of a no-brainer, right?

The authors of an independent report into career pathways for teachers certainly thought so. In 2019, their final report was absolutely, unequivocally clear about the importance of, amongst other things, Masters-level study. The issue was seen as so critical that it warranted an entire recommendation of its own: “Further steps should be taken to promote teaching as a Masters profession while recognising the importance of work-based professional learning and experience.”

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The report noted a “mixed economy of funding and provision across Scotland” and insisted that Masters qualifications should continue to be supported by Scottish Government grants.

But, as we recently reported, the government has other ideas - having now decided that Masters funding for teachers isn’t a priority after all, it has pulled financial support for all but Headteacher programmes. In doing so, ministers expect to save around £700,000 which, for a little context, isn’t all that much more than they spent on external PR agencies last year.

But does any of this really matter to anyone other than teachers themselves?

When some councils are ditching teaching staff while other schools can’t recruit the ones they need, and with money so tight across the board, is subsidising Masters-level courses a good use of resources?

Do these programmes have much to do with what is, surely, the real priority for all of us: improving the quality of our children’s education?

For Dr Robertson, the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. Better professional development, she argues, produces better teachers with more advanced skills, deeper professional knowledge, and an enhanced ability to meet the increasingly complex needs of their pupils.

This is why some countries regard Masters-level teaching programmes as a key tool for enhancing the quality of young people’s classroom experiences: in much-praised Finland, for example, all teachers are required to hold a Masters qualification to enter the profession, while even some states in the USA insist on the achievement of a Masters within a few years of starting teaching.

“Without getting into international comparison and policy borrowing (which can often be unhelpful and lead to further distortions) a brief glance to Wales and we can see the investment there from government to create the new National Masters in Education. This is being created to recognise the increasing complexity of skills and knowledge needed to develop teaching expertise and to support the changed landscaped in Welsh education.”

Read more: Hayward Report explained: What is a Scottish Diploma of Achievement?

Teachers engaged in Masters learning generally spend years completing the programme, which mixes teaching practice and professional experience with advanced academic learning.

Dr Robertson argues that such opportunities are going to become more, not less, important as we progress through a time of potentially enormous change in Scottish education, with new policies, agendas, curricular demands and even teaching approaches all to be wrestled with.

“This complex work requires a well-funded and supported professional learning and development landscape, that recognises and values the distinct knowledge and development that takes place at different career stages and in different spaces.”

The removal of financial support, she adds, threatens to ‘destabilise’ this key aspect of the education sector.

“Masters is not the only, or indeed necessarily the most important, professional learning but it is absolutely essential it is a valued part of the core fabric of the teacher learning and development landscape.”

For Elisabeth Davies, a former primary school teacher who is now a PhD student and Associate Lecturer at UWS, cuts to Masters funding aren’t just a professional problem – they are also an equality issue.

“I’ve been eternally grateful for the funding I received and since graduating with the MEd have been afforded the ability to undertake a PhD which directly aims to improve the lives of young people in Scotland. Both my masters and PhD have been framed around the experiences of minority ethnic youth in Scotland to hopefully improve anti-racist education.

Without masters funding, none of what I’ve achieved would be possible. I don’t think that experience should be gatekept for practitioners who can financially afford it.

“To be honest, I just find it all such a 180-degree change from the initial goal of the Scottish Government, which was to drive teacher professionalism through increasing masters level study amongst practitioners much like the Finnish model. To now pull the funding when there has been such limited time to measure the impact on our young people and education feels like a huge loss of potential. It's hugely shortsighted.

“The teaching standards have recently been revised and given the continued onus on teacher professionalism and leadership, the role of the Masters level study is clear in developing critical practitioners. To pull the funding marginalises so many practitioners for which this avenue of rich professional learning is unaffordable.”

To Amy (not her real name), a Scottish headteacher who has completed Masters level study at different stages, the removal of government funding directly threatens the quality of schooling in the country.

“These cuts to funding are, ultimately, cuts to the quality of our profession. The teacher recruitment crisis is very real, and removing subsidy from so many of the Masters level opportunities seems fundamentally short-sighted. These help to keep the best of our profession teaching and leading in our schools.

“Whenever we talk about the purpose of professional learning, we are rightly encouraged to relate its value to the difference it makes to children and young people.

“During my Masters study, I was able to enact, monitor and evaluate change through action research around complex topics such as school culture, inclusion, equity and educator identity. The demands of the programme focused on us constantly coming back to the question of what we as educational leaders could do to have a positive impact within our own sphere of influence, with the ultimate aim of improving the life chances of our young people.”

She also worries about the long-term impact of the government’s decision, fearing that the repercussions will be felt for years to come.

“Like everyone else, teachers have been affected by the cost of living crisis. With bills, mortgages and families to support, asking them to contribute thousands rather than hundreds of pounds to improve their professional practice will result in mass disengagement with Masters level learning.

“Ultimately,” she adds, “this will reduce the skills, knowledge and experience of those who have committed their professional lives to our children and young people.”