Teacher professionalism in a new era




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Teacher professionalism in a new era

Geoff Whitty

Institute of Education, University of London


Paper presented at the first General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland Annual Lecture, Belfast, March 2006


Introduction

Contemporary educational reform – including both marketisation and centralisation, but also a new emphasis on the involvement of a wider range of stakeholders – has resulted in a period of significant change for teachers. It has also raised new questions: for example, how should we understand the role of the teacher? Who has a right to be involved in decisions about education? Consequently, and perhaps more than ever in recent times, we need to reflect on the appropriateness of existing notions of teacher professionalism to the context in which teachers work and to the goal of social justice.


Devolution and competition, alongside increasing central prescription and performativity demands, have become global trends in education policy over the past twenty years, even though the particular balance of policies has varied from place to place and, indeed, from government to government within particular countries (Whitty, Power & Halpin, 1998). Yet, particularly in those countries that embarked early on these reforms, both market-based policies and so-called ‘Third Way’ alternatives are already demonstrating their limitations, especially in relation to social justice.


In England, the New Labour government has recently admitted that its own research demonstrates this failure: it shows that, although educational standards have risen overall during its term of office, the relative performance of children from poorer socio-economic backgrounds has not improved (Kelly, 2005). This is despite the fact that some of New Labour’s policies had been expected to counter the social inequities that had arisen from the policies of their Conservative predecessors.


This news did not come as a complete surprise to me; as early as 1997 Peter Mortimore and I had warned that research indicated how the sort of school improvement policies then being advocated by New Labour might well have this effect, unless much stronger measures of positive discrimination were introduced (Mortimore & Whitty, 1997). In the same publication, we deplored the way in which many politicians blamed teachers for all the ills of society and failed to recognise the strength of their commitment to educational improvement. We also argued that it was unrealistic to expect teachers alone to overcome the effects of social disadvantage on education.


Yet, there is a real sense in which recent reforms have been a response to perceived failures on the part of teachers. This view is certainly reflected in the ‘official’ account of reforms in England offered by Michael Barber, the key architect of New Labour’s policies (eg, Barber, 2005). He argues that there have been four phases of reform since the 1960s, as follows:

  • Uninformed professionalism – the period prior to the 1980s, often regarded as the golden age of teacher autonomy but when, according to Barber, teachers lacked appropriate knowledge, skills and attitudes for a modern society

  • Uninformed prescription – the period following the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1979 and, in particular, its imposition of a National Curriculum in 1988 for political rather than educational reasons

  • Informed prescription – the period following the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour government in 1997, bringing with it (in Barber’s view) ‘evidence-based’ policies such as the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies and Standards-based teacher training

  • Informed professionalism – a new phase, just beginning, when teachers will have appropriate knowledge, skills and attitudes so that the government can grant them a greater degree of licensed autonomy to manage their own affairs.


As Dainton (2005) rightly points out, Barber provides a crude analysis that is historically inaccurate. She also wryly comments that ‘“delivering” someone else’s thoughts, ideas, strategies and lesson plans hardly counts as “informed professionalism”’ (159).


In response, however, I shall suggest that, while New Labour’s managerialist reforms have so far failed to create the conditions for ‘informed professionalism’, let alone the positive equity outcomes that their advocates predicted, they have contained some ‘progressive moments’. These will need to be held onto as we seek to develop a form of professionalism that transcends both traditional professionalism and the attacks on that tradition implicit in recent reforms. In this paper, therefore, I shall be interrogating these reforms with a view to establishing the possibilities for what I (and others) have termed ‘democratic professionalism’.


Approaches to defining ‘professionalism’

I want to begin by looking briefly at approaches to defining ‘professionalism’. As I argued in my book Making Sense of Education Policy (Whitty, 2002), sociological discourse about professionalism and the state can go some way in helping us to understand the contemporary condition of teachers as professionals.


The nature of professionalism was initially subjected to concerted attention by sociologists in the 1950s. The main approach at this point focused on establishing the features that an occupation should have in order to be termed a profession. A typical list included such items as:

  • the use of skills based on theoretical knowledge

  • education and training in those skills certified by examination

  • a code of professional conduct oriented towards the ‘public good’

  • a powerful professional organisation

(Millerson, 1964).


These lists reflected the nature of established professions such as medicine and law, while occupations that did not entirely meet such criteria were given the title ‘quasi-’ or ‘semi-professions’ (Etzioni, 1969). Moving to ‘full’ professional status was seen as part of an aspiring occupation’s ‘professional project’ and this has applied to the strategy of teachers in many countries.


In contrast, more recent sociological perspectives on professionalism have rejected such normative notions of what it means to be a professional. Instead, they see professionalism as a shifting phenomenon – a profession, they suggest, is whatever people think it is at any particular time (Hanlon, 1998). Rather than asking whether the teaching profession lives up to some supposed ideal, such an approach encourages us to explore the characteristics of teaching as an occupation in the present.


Other contemporary sociologists, particularly those working in a feminist perspective, have taken a more directly critical stance towards traditional conceptions of professionalism. For example, Davies (1995; 1996) regards the ‘old professions’ as characterised by elitism, paternalism, authoritarianism, highly exclusive knowledge, control and detachment. Such sociologists therefore question whether aspiring to this model is appropriate.


In practice, of course, in most countries the characteristics of a profession have been increasingly determined by the state, which became the major stakeholder in defining professionalism in the twentieth century. Most professionals are employed, or at least regulated, by governments, with professional status typically dependent on the sort of bargain an occupation has struck with the state – what is sometimes called its ‘professional mandate’. The nature of teachers’ professional mandate has become a key policy issue for governments in many countries, sometimes as part of a broader attempt to redefine professionalism, especially in the public sector, and sometimes as a specific aspect of education reform.


I shall now look at the policy developments and their drivers that have contributed to these agendas.


From the ‘golden age’ of teacher autonomy to ‘steering at a distance’

The teaching profession in England, and indeed Northern Ireland, has never enjoyed the ‘licensed autonomy’ that occupations such as medicine and law have traditionally had, whereby they have been permitted by the state to regulate their own affairs. Nevertheless, from the 1950s until the mid-1970s, it experienced a considerable degree of de facto autonomy – that ‘golden age’ of teacher control (Le Grand, 1997). Parents were expected to trust teachers to know what was best for their children. Accordingly, the teacher’s role included the freedom to decide not only how to teach but also what to teach. In this, they had a particular responsibility for curriculum development and innovation. Even though effectively the state paid most teachers’ salaries, it did not intervene actively in the content of either teacher training or the work of teachers in schools.


From the mid-1970s, however, there were some dramatic changes in policy and, linked to these, attempts to change the nature of teacher professionalism. Due to economic downturn across the industrialised west, there was growing criticism of the ‘swollen state’ of post-war social democracy, not only for cost reasons but also because the welfare state had failed to deliver its original promise. This became coupled with an intellectual critique of public sector management on the part of neo-liberals and public choice theorists. The outcome was a call for public sector providers to be subjected to greater accountability – both through market-based competition and increased surveillance by the state. Particularly under Thatcherism and similar regimes elsewhere, there were swingeing attacks on public sector professions, including teachers, who were accused of abusing their autonomy to the detriment of pupils and society.


A key strand of policy, as in other countries, has been to re-position public sector schools as competitors in the marketplace, encouraging them to behave more like those in the private sector. Parents have been offered greater choice over the school that their children attend, which is often coupled with a shift to per capita funding and, in some cases, experimental voucher systems. Budgets and managerial power are handed down to schools in the expectation that they can then respond more effectively to the preferences of parents as consumers. While these developments are probably less advanced in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom, local management of schools and similar arrangements are already in place. When the Transfer Test is abolished the Department of Education has pledged to put in place a new system based on informed parental and pupil choice in the context of a more differentiated system.


However, while contemporary governments have been enthusiastic about making schools more receptive to parents’ wishes, they are generally unwilling to relinquish control over the outcomes that schools should achieve. Thus, we have the apparent paradox of the ‘free market and the strong state’ (Gamble, 1988). While devolution appears to offer organisations greater autonomy, the state retains overall strategic control by setting the outputs that providers need to achieve (Neave, 1988: 11). This is operationalised through the range of targets and performance indicators, and associated league tables that have grown up around ‘marketised’ systems. Although justified in terms of providing information for the ‘consumer’ and greater public accountability, these indicators also enable government to scrutinise and direct providers. Arguably, they indirectly influence the priorities of parents – who in turn reinforce the pressure on schools to achieve government-determined outcomes (Adnett & Davies, 2003).


These developments have obvious implications for teachers and teacher professionalism. Standardised criteria now feed into the framework of targets and indicators that schools and individual teachers must work to, and the new assessment regimes provide a wealth of performance data for their managers at all levels of the system. Although performance indicators severely delimit and direct what and how schools manage their resources, the stakes that are involved have still necessitated the growth of managerialism and the development of a distinct managerial tier within schools. One consequence of this is likely to be increased fragmentation of the profession.


From New Right restructuring to New Labour revisionism

In England, the Conservative government’s 1988 Education Reform Act has often been seen as the epitome of a policy combining market forces and state control. Similar levels of prescription in relation to the curriculum were introduced in Northern Ireland a year later. Importantly, however, policy under the Conservatives by no means represented the height of these trends in England. Despite the proclaimed ‘Third Way’ approach of New Labour after 1997, in practice its education reforms have built on the ‘new right settlement’ and even gone beyond it – combining devolution, diversity, choice and even privatisation, on the one hand, and centralised regulation, monitoring and even pedagogical prescription, on the other.


As part of this, under New Labour, we have begun to see developments that reinforce and ‘concretise’ changes in the conceptualisation of teacher professionalism. There seems to have been a progressive move away from a concern with up-skilling teachers as individuals or even seeing responsibility for educational improvement as lying largely in the hands of the teaching profession, however it is regulated. Instead, there has been a growing focus on education as a collective endeavour, encompassing a much wider range of stakeholders than merely the state and teachers themselves.


This approach was effectively summarised in the 1998 Green Paper, Teachers: meeting the challenge of change (DfEE, 1998), which noted that ‘The time has long gone when isolated, unaccountable professionals made curriculum and pedagogical decisions alone, without reference to the outside world’.


It went on to list what, in the government’s view, a modern teaching profession needed:

  • to have high expectations of themselves and of all pupils;

  • to accept accountability;

  • to take personal and collective responsibility for improving their skills and subject knowledge;

  • to seek to base decisions on evidence of what works in schools in the UK and internationally;

  • to work in partnership with other staff in schools;

  • to welcome the contribution that parents, business and others outside a school can make to its success; and

  • to anticipate change and promote innovation.


In this respect, New Labour’s agenda for education may provide a useful ‘case study’, or ‘ideal type’ of where professionalism in education is heading – and I want to look briefly at a few examples of the policies that have emerged from it.


Certainly, there has been a reinforcement by New Labour of the need for the state to take a much more assertive role in specifying what teachers are expected to achieve, rather than leaving it to professional judgement alone. There is a real enthusiasm for intervening in the detail of educational processes, with advice on all aspects of the day-to-day running of schools and teaching itself. Furlong (2005) highlights the 2,000 model lesson plans that teachers can now download from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) website – something that would have been unthinkable in England not many years ago and is reminiscent of traditional English criticisms of highly centralised systems such as those of France.


National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies

This approach of intervening in the detailed processes of teaching, specifying how to teach in addition to what to teach, supposedly based on evidence of ‘what works’, is particularly evident in New Labour’s National Strategies for Literacy and Numeracy. Although the levels of prescription we have seen in England have not been introduced in Northern Ireland, the Department of Education has produced the Strategy for the Promotion of Literacy and Numeracy in Primary and Secondary Schools (DENI, 1998). This has brought a drive for greater coherence and consistency across schools and some degree of additional target setting.


In one sense, the Strategies are just one element of a long process of curriculum reform stretching back to the introduction of the National Curriculum. But they are also qualitatively different, both in their immediate impact on teachers’ work, and through the pace of change they have ushered in. Delivery has been standardised through prescribed content and a well-defined sequence and structure to lessons, coupled with the promotion of particular teaching approaches – for example, the Literacy and Numeracy Hours (see Webb et al, 2004). Increased funding for research on ‘what works’, professional development courses for teachers, books and the production of classroom materials supported this effort to standardise provision.


In turn, the Strategies have included ambitious targets and a significant programme of pupil assessments to monitor achievement and the extent to which all pupils were reaching a given level in their literacy and numeracy. In this, the levers of monitoring and target setting have been such that they have enabled the centre to steer schools and teachers much more closely than before (Moss, 2004). More recently, steering at a distance has entailed a combination of target setting and incorporating schools themselves by requiring them to engage in a process of self-evaluation. As the broader Primary and Secondary Strategies – into which the literacy and numeracy strategies have been absorbed – also embrace a national approach to the improvement of behaviour and attendance, they arguably extend the scope of this central direction ever further.


Complementary changes to teacher education

Another area of reform has been teacher education, which has seen changes to both its structure and content. In England, training is now largely school-based, even on programmes led by universities. It is a more practically-based form of preparation, with an emphasis on training rather than education and, in particular, the achievement of practical competences that are set centrally (Furlong et al, 2000).


The highly diverse array of teacher training courses provided by universities and colleges in England was first brought under centrally mandated requirements in 1984. Accreditation was now dependent on meeting officially defined criteria, including the number of weeks to be spent in school and the number of hours to be spent on English and mathematics in primary training (DES, 1984). Control was tightened from the late 1980s with a series of government circulars setting out competences that had to be met by students before qualifying to teach (DES, 1989; DfE, 1992, 1993).


The work some of us did for the Department of Education in Northern Ireland in the 1990s was critical of this approach and we expressed the view that ‘the atomisation of professional knowledge, judgement and skill into discrete competences inevitably fails to capture the essence of professional competence’ (DENI, 1993: 4). And, indeed, in some cases, such an approach led to an unduly bureaucratic model of student teacher development that, at its worst, was focused much more upon ticking boxes of statements of competence than upon the real issues related to teaching and learning.


Another development, which was taken up by the incoming New Labour government in 1997, effectively turned the competences into what was an ultimately unworkable eighty-five page ‘national curriculum’ for teacher training. This specified in very great detail the content that had to be covered by trainee teachers in English, mathematics, science and ICT. As Furlong et al (2000) point out, although the curriculum was designed to constrain teacher educators rather than the trainees themselves, it could be argued that the ‘hidden curriculum’ of this approach provided ‘…appropriate socialisation into a profession in which official prescription of teaching approaches (encroaches) on autonomous professional judgements’ (154).


New Labour has now abandoned this national curriculum to focus on the stipulation of standards to be achieved by all trainees (DfES/TTA, 2002). The resulting standards do respond to criticisms of earlier versions by recognising the importance of reflexive practice and, overall, represent a somewhat more manageable and holistic set. But it took almost a decade for the English authorities to recognise what we always argued in Northern Ireland – that individual competences that were not thoroughly and consistently underpinned by clear professional values would fail to deliver the sorts of professionals needed in the twenty-first century.


The English standards are currently undergoing a further process of revision as the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) develops a framework to cover teachers’ whole career rather than just the initial training. But there are still different sets of standards for different groups of teachers, some which the TDA finds it difficult to define clearly, e.g. Advanced Skills Teachers and Excellent Teachers. As my colleague, Sara Bubb, who is working closely with the GTCNI on the development of its own scheme, has put it:


It’s such a shame the TDA hasn’t taken this golden opportunity to draft just one well thought through set of standards for the whole of the teaching profession, like the new 27 Northern Ireland competences…These recognise that each standard is a continuum to be met to different degrees depending on a teacher’s role, experience and context. Doesn’t that make more sense? (Bubb, 2006).


The TDA review has also specifically addressed the issue of teachers’ research skills.  This represents a move towards recognising teaching as a research-based profession.  As their draft standards currently stand, however, the only teachers for whom the use of research to inform teaching is stipulated are those with Advanced Skills and Excellent Teacher status.  Like many who commented on the original draft, my view is that the whole profession should be research-informed, so I hope that the eventual standards will come to reflect this. On this basis, I welcome the General Teaching Councils’ inclusion of research pages on their websites. The GTC in Northern Ireland seems to pay particular attention to this – with the aim of collating a database of all educational research conducted in Northern Ireland and of facilitating practising teachers’ attendance at the North of England Conference this year.


Looking more generally at Continuing Professional Development, in England there are now much broader opportunities opening-up for extended professional development through, for example, the TDA’s Postgraduate Development Programme. But, as with the draft teacher standards, these opportunities are currently available only to a small proportion of the workforce. At the same time, other courses for teachers have become increasingly centrally-defined and focused on short-term practical training closely tied to government Strategies – for example, additional phonics training to support the Literacy Strategy. In this sense, CPD opportunities are now largely focused on the needs of the school and its pupils rather than the individual teacher. The GTCNI is currently working to establish a ‘mixed economy’ model that addresses individual as well as school-based and systemic needs. Nevertheless, and particularly so in England, this shift reflects what is a broader significant development for the future of teacher professionalism – the emphasis on education as a collective endeavour and the role of other stakeholders in raising standards in school.
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