Education policy – Let’s restore teachers’ sense of agency

The past five decades in education has seen a steady diminishing of teachers’ agency and autonomy, observes Dr Shirley Lawes. Could it be the reduction of teachers to curriculum deliverers/technicians that, in part, explains why a radically moralistic Critical Social Justice ideology appeals to some?

When I started teaching in the early 1970s, there was no National Curriculum, no Ofsted inspections and no league tables. The school leaving age had only just been raised to 16.

Recent reforms had seen the education system largely abandon selection at the age of 11, reflecting concerns by the policymakers of the day that the inequalities emerging from said system over the previous 25 years had to be addressed.

Instead, comprehensive education would establish a more egalitarian system – though this presented a huge challenge to teachers, who suddenly found themselves having to inspire and enthuse children from diverse backgrounds with wildly divergent abilities and attitudes towards education.

Foundation disciplines
It was an exciting time to be entering teaching. I’d undertaken a three-year ‘Certificate in Education’ course at a polytechnic, which endeavoured to make students think about the meaning and purpose of education in this new era through ‘foundation disciplines’ – namely the philosophy, sociology, history and psychology of education.

Besides this introduction to education theory, we also studied a specialist subject (mine being French) and spent one term each year studying teaching practice under the supervision of a teacher in school and a college tutor.

Taken together, this Cert. Ed. qualification was sometimes considered inferior to the PGCE, since the subject knowledge component wasn’t directly comparable to what students might attain through studying for a university Honours Degree.

For many years, I was therefore reluctant to admit that I’d ‘only’ completed a Cert.Ed course, and subsequently gained additional qualifications to try and achieve parity with my graduate colleagues.

Spirit of hope
Now, after more than 50 years of school/college teaching, university tutoring and leading PGCE courses, I’m convinced that teacher education has been reduced to a technical process narrowly focused on producing compliant, conformist practitioners.

The professional status of teachers is now limited to ‘delivery’ of a pre-set curriculum. At the same time, their roles have become increasingly concerned with social, rather than intellectual development.

Teachers complain that they feel like social workers, their jobs increasingly revolving around testing and accountability, and subject to conditions of service that are ever more onerous and less secure. The teaching profession has lost its sense of agency.

The profession I entered in 1972 was quite different. One with many problems, yes – but it seemed back then that there was at least an implicit understanding of the inherent value and purpose of education, and a spirit of hope, in marked contrast to the despair I see around me now.

I can remember being full of enthusiasm at the prospect of my burgeoning career, and being left to largely make my own way in what was a fairly difficult comprehensive school struggling to establish itself in a brave new world. Subject teachers at the time had more freedom to teach how and what they liked, and to experiment – though of course, this wasn’t always done in the best interests of providing a ‘broad and balanced’ education, and mistakes were made.

Confidence in the ability of these new schools to provide a good education for all secondary-aged pupils was short-lived, however. As early as 1976, the then Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, expressed in his famous Ruskin College speech (during a period of ongoing economic crisis) the view that education could no longer be left to educators alone, and that government, industry and business should also be involved – thus ushering in a decline of trust in teachers to be autonomous, responsible professionals.

Stoical response
When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, education became a core target for government intervention. Thatcher and her advisers saw the education system as failing, and felt it was time for government to decide what should be taught in schools, while tackling what they perceived as an entrenched ‘loony left’ within the teaching profession.

The far-reaching Education Reform Act of 1988 thus introduced the National Curriculum for England and Wales, meaning that for the first time, teachers would now be told exactly what they must teach.

As I remember it, teachers responded stoically, while wading through reams of introductory guidance and detail. This marked the point where teachers began to decisively lose their autonomy and confidence as professionals, and they’ve never regained it since – though there was little action taken at the time to really oppose the move.

The external pressures brought about by the unveiling of league tables and the new Ofsted inspection framework in 1992 all but confirmed that schools needed close supervision, and couldn’t be trusted to strive for higher standards.

As the Thatcher years gave way to the Blair years, we saw a continuation of these right-wing policies. A key mantra of Labour’s successful 1997 election campaign had been ‘education, education, education’, signalling its intention to treat the area as a policy priority; what followed was unprecedented involvement by central government in aspects of education hitherto left to educators to define and monitor.

Another crucial development that took place under New Labour was the increasingly heavy emphasis on schools’ social mission, and growing pressure on teachers and leaders to assume ever greater responsibility for solving social inequalities. No longer was school this unique place where we learn that which we don’t learn anywhere else.

Instead, we entered a period where knowledge for its own sake was considered, in the widely reported words of former Education Minister Charles Clark, ‘A bit dodgy.’

Underlying instrumentalism
Subsequent iterations of the National Curriculum could be seen to confirm this view, leading us to a present day in which the underlying instrumentalism in education has never been more explicit.

The introduction and rapid expansion of the academies and free schools system could have been an ideal opportunity for doing things differently, but educational experimentation has been mostly discouraged in favour of educational success being judged more narrowly than ever in instrumental terms on the basis of examination results.

Accountability has become a Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of every practising teacher. Curriculum planning now tends to be built around ‘outcomes’ and the expectation to provide some form of tangible evidence for learning – often at the end of each lesson.

So it is that the role of ‘teacher’ has moved much closer to that of someone delivering pre-packaged knowledge while inculcating a certain set of social attitudes, rather than the trained professionals teaching specialist knowledge to students that they ought to be.

Do you believe that teachers should be concerned first and foremost with the intellectual transformation of the individual? If so, then teachers will need to reassert their confidence, do more to nurture students’ long-term aspirations, come to recognise knowledge itself as a form of personal enrichment, and above all, have their sense of agency restored.

Of course, examination success is undoubtedly important – but schools need to provide an enriched experience of subjects that inspires young people beyond exam specifications, and enlivens their curiosity and desire to better understand the wider world. This, it seems to me, is what’s been lost over the past 50 years.

Dr Shirley Lawes is a lecturer in modern foreign languages at UCL Institute of Education

First published on Teachwire.