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Interview about EMPO, the Master’s of Science in Primary Education

The new Master’s programme (joint programme): the EMPO programme is a unique collaboration between Pedagogical Sciences and Educational Sciences at three universities: Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and Leiden University.

‘In the EMPO programme we combine our extensive experience and expertise in academic teacher training and educational research.’ The Master’s programme will start in September 2022, with official accreditation expected this January. So it’s a good moment to talk to the programme initiators, Prof. Dr. Maartje Raijmakers and Dr. Anne Fleur Kortekaas-Rijlaarsdam, about the genesis and goals of Master’s of Science in Primary Education (EMPO).

What is the purpose of the EMPO programme?

"With the EMPO programme we aim to contribute to diversity in school teams by training teachers who, on the basis of practical expertise and an academic Master’s degree, can contribute to educational issues now and in the future. Our students will have backgrounds in areas such as sociology, psychology, pedagogical sciences or public administration. In the EMPO programme we teach them to apply their Bachelor’s expertise in primary education. Consequently, we will not only teach trainers at a different level (the EMPO is the first teacher training programme in which the teaching qualification for primary education is issued at university Master’s level), but we will also turn out teachers with huge practical expertise that is currently not widely available in school teams. It’s important that this expertise be recognised and valued. So school boards will need to put these people in a position where they can use their expertise, too. This means that the teams need to recognise each other’s expertise. To this end, we are holding extensive discussions with the school boards who wish to be involved in the EMPO programme. 

The next step we’ll be taking is to apply for the status of prospective academic teacher training school. In a prospective training school, you consult with the school boards in the region to jointly formulate your vision for training the EMPO teachers and how you aim to support them and position them in the school. Most of the school boards we talked to now regard the EMPO programme as a very valuable addition to their work placement students and teaching team."

This month saw the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam’s Master’s Event and in November the open days took place at the UvA and at Leiden University: how did the prospective students respond?

“Many of their questions were in-depth ones about details of the programme and about the work placement. It’s nice to see that people have already been thinking carefully about this concept, and are seriously considering this new degree programme. It’s clear that people can already identify with it and they seem highly motivated. That’s positive.

What we found striking was that people say they’ve been waiting for this. That they had previously considered moving into primary education but couldn’t find a suitable training option. They say: ‘Now that the EMPO is coming I want to make the move from my current work to the teaching profession!’. These are people who felt unsure about making the change and now feel encouraged to go for it.”

There’s a lot of information to be communicated about the EMPO. We hope that interested persons (both prospective students and colleagues from the Faculty of Behavioural and Movement Sciences and the Faculty of Social Sciences) will contact us with their questions, for instance via Full information about the structure of programme can be found here."

It’s clear that future students are highly motivated to choose the EMPO programme, as reflected in the high scores in the poll for the following statements:

The profession of teacher is an important social profession

It’s good/useful to have a teaching qualification in your portfolio

MR: “What’s important is the social contribution that you as a teacher can make. This is an awareness that grows during your Bachelor’s programme. One of the principles of the EMPO programme is that you will really use your knowledge from the Bachelor’s programme when you start teaching. We build on this, it’s something we explicitly focus on. You make the difference in the classroom. Students who study developmental psychology because they’re interested in how children develop can then take a great subsequent step in the EMPO towards working with children. And students of pedagogical sciences have an additional possibility to contribute to the education system. With the current teacher shortages, this is more important than ever.”

How are things going with student applications?

"At the moment it’s still hard to estimate how many applications we’ll be receiving.

We carried out a broad survey among our Bachelor’s students and this revealed the high level of enthusiasm among our current Bachelor’s students and how broad the group of interested persons is. That prompted us to continue the development of the programme, back in early 2020. On the basis of the survey we assessed that 90 students would start the programme, but this remains an estimate.

The EMPO programme is directly accessible to students with an academic Bachelor’s in social and behavioural sciences. But it’s striking that interest is wider than we had imagined, for instance also among people with a background in linguistics. We’re also interested in people who would like to enter the programme but can’t be directly admitted. We are now also considering developing a pre-Master’s for the EMPO programme, obviously in collaboration with UvA and Leiden University."

How has the collaboration been with all the parties?

"One really important thing for us was that lecturers have responded so enthusiastically and wanted to work together with us, and how enthusiastic and involved everyone in the professional field is, for instance with their ideas about the frameworks and coaching. School boards in the region and the Professional Association of Academics in Primary Education (BAB) shared ideas. We were able to pitch them ideas, for instance about how we aim to teach didactics and practice with didactics in the classroom and what conditions schools need to provide for the work placements to go well.

We first talked to a small group of school administrators about the curriculum, and we are now conducting a broader dialogue in the region with just about all school boards. We asked them if they wanted to participate, and if they did, with which schools. One school may be more suitable than another. For our part, as the EMPO programme, we want at least one teacher with a Master’s degree to be present at the work placement school. Many school boards in Amsterdam already have academically trained school educators on their staff, who themselves are university graduates.

The entire process has involved a lot of work, but that’s what we expected. Sometimes we worked through the night, but above all it has been really interesting and exciting. In order to create a good curriculum we’ve had many discussions with experts from the academic and practical fields, and of course consulted the literature. On this basis we were able to envisage how we wanted to set it up, and why; this gave us and gives us lots of energy."

How did UASs offering teacher training programmes respond to the EMPO plan?

AK: “It has been complicated. Precisely because we work together in so many different ways, and we’ve invested a lot in this. We’ve had extensive discussions with our partner UASs and, through Universities of the Netherlands, with the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences (VH). We are very transparent and we inform everyone about the steps we’re taking.”

MR:  “What’s important is that we get on well together at our level in the universities. The main issue has been the content. The basic principle for the EMPO programme has always been that we as universities award the teaching qualification. We wanted to do this for purely content-related reasons, because then we’re also responsible for and accountable for the practical component, including the work placement. The UASs are used to doing that themselves. We’ve tried to facilitate collaboration at all administrative levels, but it didn’t work out. It has proved to be a sensible decision that earlier we decided, as three universities, to undertake this together. We feel strongly supported by our rectors, and we’ve always had lots of support from the Universities of the Netherlands. Reducing the teacher shortage is the most important thing.


“Teacher quality is a key factor in the quality of the education provided to children. It’s interesting to reflect on practical and theoretical teaching in the didactics and pedagogics for primary education. What’s important is that we can design the work placement ourselves and that we can link it to the theory.”

Maartje Raijmakers


How do you include practical teaching in the EMPO programme?

AK: “Here’s one concrete example of how we design the practical section: we teach students principles of teaching good classes and pedagogical action in the classroom at the meta-level, and to a lesser extent the specific teaching methodology of, for instance, arithmetic and language. We offer a less subject-oriented approach than some PABOs. 

In the EMPO we find it important that students properly understand why certain pedagogical and didactical approaches work and what the evidence is for this. In the Netherlands there’s a vicious circle at play. On the one hand, all kinds of methods are offered and then implemented by the teachers, and many primary school teachers are accustomed to these. On the other hand, many experts, including those on the Curriculum Committee, feel it’s desirable for teachers to have a good didactical and pedagogical understanding so that they can create this teaching for themselves. That’s a highly complex issue, certainly in view of the growing heterogeneity in classes. This is why the core of learning pathway focused on educational practice in the EMPO is more about learning to take into account differences between pupils, to differentiate."

What have been the challenges so far?

“The relationship with existing training programmes and the limited number of Master’s programmes that can be offered at a faculty – these factors result in questions like ‘is there space for this new programme?'. This requires a lot of consultation within the faculty, at all three universities. It has actually taken place in a very streamlined way, with us receiving very good guidance and support from the central policy support staff. Developing new education also puts additional demands on staff. Before funding became available, it often wasn’t possible to remunerate people fully for their work, because to begin with it formed part of the current teaching load. Luckily people responded with great enthusiasm. A huge amount of work was done in a very short period: everyone invested in the plans because they believe in them.”

The EMPO is a joint degree: what does that mean in terms of collaboration?

“There’s a lot of complementary expertise. We’ve also got new courses, for instance, such as a course based on the UvA’s expertise in ‘pupil-teacher relations’ and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam’s expertise in ‘teacher-parent relations’. On this basis we have developed ‘pupil-teacher and teacher-parent relations’ as a subject. That’s going to be a really great course.

A joint degree makes things very complex in terms of designing the structure of the programme. Not only in terms of content; the logistics are complicated too: exchanging student data is a balancing act and the funding rules are complex, as is the distribution between the different universities. The relationship between the faculties and the central administration varies hugely from university to university. This makes manoeuvring complex. Luckily we’ve received excellent support from both the faculty and the central administration during this process, which is still continuing. And there’s a great readiness to help: many people are willing to make an effort for this plan. In all the organisations.”


“In the process of updating the curriculum for university-based primary education teacher training (PABO), in response to the continuously changing practice of primary education, the need arose to develop a university-based teacher training programme at Master’s level, enabling us as to award the teaching qualification ourselves and increase the diversity of school teams.”

Anne Fleur Kortekaas-Rijlaarsdam


Are there any comparable initiatives?

“There’s an initiative in Rotterdam, with which we’ve had a lot of contact: the Erasmus University is also starting an EMPO programme in September 2022. We’ve been consulting a lot in terms of the content and we’re coordinating our efforts. To give one example, we’re exploring whether we can jointly set up a prospective teacher training school. The coordination with Rotterdam on this project is going really well. It’s very powerful to realise this on a joint basis.”

How is the collaboration going with teacher training programmes for secondary education?

“We’ve got good contacts with the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam’s teacher training programmes for secondary education, as well as the programme at the UvA. When deciding on the curriculum we looked at how secondary education teacher training programmes are set up. We’ve learned a lot from this in terms of content and the practical issues, for instance about how to organise and supervise the work placement. Various persons involved in the development of the EMPO, for instance in internal assessments and the test assessment, have an important role in the secondary education teacher training programmes. Some of the EMPO lecturers are also lecturers at the secondary education teacher training programmes of the involved universities.”

What are the future prospects for a teacher who’s an EMPO graduate?

“Students choose the EMPO programme because they want to teach in primary education. The EMPO trains you above all to teach lessons in the classroom, whereby students learn during the programme to employ their technical expertise and research skills at the level of the child, the class and the school. Evaluating, analysing and adjusting one’s own teaching is the key factor here. EMPO alumni are able to adapt their teaching to ever-changing educational practice. The programme focuses on developing this adaptability, the adaptive expertise. EMPO alumni will take the lead in educational innovations at the level of class and school, in coordinating care and research."

What about the teacher’s scholarship for obtaining a PhD?

"If you complete this Master’s programme (Master of Science), you qualify yourself for the profession of teacher, but it also qualifies you for obtaining a PhD. The PhD scholarships for teachers are well-suited to the needs of people who wish to combine their teaching with PhD research into their own educational practice. In this case they continue to work at the school, and hence the research will relate to the school context. Although they still teach classes, to some extent other teachers will substitute for them so that they can also work on their PhD.”

Is this a Unique Selling Point for students?

“It certainly is. But don’t forget that this is really hard work: you’ve got your teaching job, and the research as well – actually you lead two lives. It might prove exhausting, but if you’ve got an inquiring mind and a sense of ambition, and you want to contribute something to society, then it’s a fantastic opportunity. After a possible PhD, there are also post-doc scholarships for teachers so that they can continue to combine the activities of teaching in school and doing research at the university.”

In the chat during the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam’s Master’s Event, Leanne asked: “Is it possible for me to locate a school for myself where I can do the EMPO work placement?”. Your answer was: “No, that’s not possible.” What’s the situation here?

“At the EMPO programme we aim to develop adaptive expertise. Training this adaptive expertise requires targeted assignments (we work in line with the principle of deliberate practice), intensive supervision in the school, across multiple schools and on the part of the university. If you’re constantly having to interact with a different school for the work placements, then the quality of the supervision can’t be guaranteed. It’s important that we build working relationships with the selected work-placement schools, by taking part in training courses together and enabling peer feedback with the supervisors.

We have a growth model: we start with 10 students, for instance, at some school boards, and then maybe we grow to 20 at these school boards. School directors already have a clear idea of which schools are robust enough to begin hosting an EMPO work placement.”

The EMPO will soon be getting its official accreditation: time for a celebration?

“Actually we already had this celebratory moment in September: immediately after the external assessment we received verbal feedback and by now we’ve also received the report: it’s extremely positive, which is great. Now the report needs to pass through various administrative levels and the minister can put her stamp on it. And then another stamp so we can become a two-year programme. So it’s pretty much signed and sealed for us now.”

Anne Fleur Kortekaas is Assistant Professor of Educational Sciences and has been responsible for coordinating the content of the university-based teacher training programme for primary education (PABO) since 2018. Over the past one and a half years, she led the curriculum development project for the new Master’s of Science in Primary Education (EMPO). She has been coordinator of the EMPO programme at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam since September. She is also project leader for the lateral-entry teacher training programme for professionals with an academic degree in the Amsterdam region. She has a PhD in Clinical Neuropsychology from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her PhD research focused on the learning problems and motivation of children with ADHD and the effects of methylphenidate on their functioning in schools. Her current research focuses on the effectiveness of educational interventions aimed at helping pupils overcome learning lags and socio-emotional problems.

Maartje Raijmakers is Professor of Educational Sciences and Orthopedagogics at the Department of Pedagogical Sciences and chair of the Educational Sciences Section. She will take up the role of director of the EMPO programme, where she will work together closely with Anne Fleur Kortekaas. She has a PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of Amsterdam (UvA). Her PhD research focused on the development of learning processes; this involves fundamental research in which mathematical models play an important role. She currently still holds a part-time academic position at the UvA as Endowed Professor affiliated with NEMO Science Museum. Her research focuses on individual differences in learning and motivation across a broad age group, from babies to adults. The research among children and adolescents focuses on science education and the development of interests. Maartje sits on the scientific Curriculum Committee set up by the Dutch House of Representatives as a follow-up to

Text and photography: Petra van Velzen