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Teacher autonomy – Why the system needs professionals, not workers

After decades of reforms that have stripped teachers of their agency, the challenges of the pandemic require teachers who are confident, positive and empowered, says Dr Alex Gardner-McTaggart…

  • Teacher autonomy – Why the system needs professionals, not workers

There are some in the teaching profession – not many, but some – who will have experienced first hand how different their roles were before the Thatcherite policies of the 1980s.

Prior to then, teachers had enjoyed ‘teacher education’, rather than ‘teacher training’. They were treated as professionals, and given far greater control over both the creative process and the execution of their jobs.

Teachers had more autonomy, regularly creating curriculums, syllabi and pedagogies using their skills and intellectualism to facilitate a transferral of knowledge.

Then came a significant shift. Throughout the 1980s and onwards into subsequent decades, there was a marked change in the way teachers were prepared for their jobs, as successive governments restricted debate and discussion between teachers and schools in favour of achieving greater state control over educational affairs.

In short, the governments of the past several decades have increasingly seen teachers more as workers, not professionals. With teachers no longer steering education, it was decided that the market would instead.

Wresting away control

In 1984, the Conservative Party abolished the Schools Council and established in its place the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, which would exercise much greater control over teacher development.

In 1985, it then abolished the Advisory Committee on the Supply and Education of Teachers, one of the last remaining representative advisory bodies; this was followed in 1986 by the abolition of the Central Advisory Councils for England and Wales.

In 1987 these efforts went even further. One month before that year’s General Election, Thatcher – then eight years into her reign as Prime Minister – told the Daily Mail, “We are going much further with education than we ever thought of doing before. When we’ve spent all that money per pupil, and with more teachers, there is still so much wrong, so we are going to do something determined about it.”

The Conservative manifesto for that year’s election, which it would go on to win, stated that the party would establish a National Core Curriculum, with a clear focus on reducing the powers of local education authorities.

This came to pass in the form of the Education Reform Act 1988. In reflecting on these changes, I’m not attempting to declare them all as negative or without merit. Creating structures for overseeing national education systems, and ensuring that particular standards are upheld, is, of course, important. So why do it? Why fixate on reforms implemented some 30 or 40 years ago?

Because it’s important that we acknowledge the various ways in which these changes significantly affected the roles of teaching professionals in this country. It’s a history we ought to understand and learn from, since the roots of many issues that have emerged during the pandemic can be traced back to these dramatic policy upheavals – this ‘proletarianisation’ of teachers, if you will – which took place the 1980s.

Our understanding of that period can then hopefully inform more positive change and practice as we emerge from the shadow of COVID-19.

Resetting the balance

The pandemic has shown us that the indomitable spirit of teachers is fundamental to the success of any education programme. Throughout, it’s been teachers who have kept the proverbial show on the road – demonstrating bravery and resilience in the face of an increased exposure to infection where schools are still open; demonstrating initiative through implementing new forms of online teaching; and generating a sense of community through their continued interactions with children.

To that end, COVID-19 has served as an important and timely reminder that without access to impassioned educators, students won’t receive the high-quality tutelage they need to excel.

Yet however impassioned they are, these teachers aren’t empowered in the ways they need to be. As per the timeline outlined above, teachers have been gradually stripped of their agency and creative control over recent decades, with much of what they do now dictated to them by the National Curriculum and teacher leaders.

Now is an opportune moment to reflect on this balance (or rather, imbalance) between managerialism and teacher control. Indeed, the impact of COVID-19 has reinforced previous research findings that show how educational leadership only impacts student achievement when it’s teacher-focussed.

As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s therefore essential that the state and teacher leaders remember that the true value of schools administration lies in helping teachers.

Sharper focus

If COVID-19 has shown that teachers are the ones who ultimately make schools run successfully, then that marks a powerful and notable ideological shift away from notions that the sector – and indeed wider society – has been drip-fed since the 1980s.

It’s a shift away from an ideology that says ‘The market is everything,’ which maintains that ‘Privatisation delivers more efficiency’ and which concludes that ‘Teachers don’t need a say, because we have people who can tell them what to do.’

The pandemic has really brought home that it’s teachers who stand in front of students, who understand and deal with the children, and who foster and develop their abilities. It’s a point one would hope was already obvious – but having seen the role and value of teachers brought into much sharper focus over the past year, if we fail to engage with the de-professionalising of teaching and discuss its impact in greater depth, then nothing will change.

As schools reopen and social distancing measures are slowly relaxed, we risk a return to traditional classroom-based learning, wherein teachers are stripped of their agency. Instead, institutions, educational leaders, communities and public bodies should recognise – just as they do in Finland and Singapore – that teachers are rounded professionals, and warrant the creative freedom to demonstrate the professionalism and expertise they possess.

A catalyst for change

Across many areas of society, the pandemic has already acted as a catalyst for positive change. It’s brought communities together, encouraged consumers to support their local businesses and high streets, inspired people to protect the most vulnerable in society and forced organisations to forge new, more efficient processes.

Alongside all of this, it must now also trigger a deeper conversation around the role of teachers in education. In the months ahead, educational leaders and teachers ought to engage in discussions around how to best harness the latter’s passion and expertise for the best possible educational outcomes, while giving them greater control and support in the process.

Teachers deserve better. They work in frequently challenging social environments, often with great empathy, skill, and compassion. They work harder in areas other professionals barely even touch upon, and regularly carry out work that demands high levels of intellectualism, reflection, stamina, and most of all, recognition and empowerment.

The pandemic has shown everyone just how hard teachers work. The time has come for society to show just how much they’re valued – as educated professionals, not trained knowledge workers. It’s a process that begins by returning to higher education for teachers, and by shifting influence over the profession back from the market to education.


Dr Alex Gardner-McTaggart is a lecturer in education at the Manchester Institute of Education and programme director for the blended online course MA Educational Leadership in Practice, focussing on international and globalising educational leadership and global citizenship education; for more information, follow @AGMcT1

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