Teacher professionalism in a new era

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Exploring responses to recent reforms

Faced with the sort of reforms I have outlined, there must be a strong temptation on the part of the teaching unions, and indeed the General Teaching Councils, to adopt defensive, exclusory positions associated with traditional models of professionalism. This is in some ways understandable – particularly in the face of government reforms that have undermined key elements of teachers’ autonomy and bargaining position. However, I would argue that it is also likely to prove untenable and we need anyway to consider what might be a more genuinely progressive strategy.

Of course, these tensions are not just being played out through the unions. Those of us within the education research community have ourselves raised a range of deep-seated concerns about recent education policy in terms of its implications for teachers. In particular, the process of marketisation and centralisation, growing performativity and the shift to standards-based teacher training have all been seen by some of my colleagues as an unacceptable attack on teacher autonomy and teacher creativity, transforming teachers from professionals to technicians (eg, Adams & Tulasiewicz, 1995; Tomlinson, 2001; Hall & Schulz, 2003).

For Sachs (2003), writing in the Australian context but referring to cross-national trends in policy, the modern professional in the eyes of governments is increasingly one who works efficiently and effectively in meeting the standardised criteria set for the accomplishment of students and teachers as well as contributing to the school’s formal accountability processes. As Furlong (2005) similarly argues, this is a form of professionalism which accepts that decisions about what to teach, how to teach and how to assess children are made at school and national level rather than by individual teachers themselves. As he continues, this brings with it a move away from seeing the individual teacher as an essential actor.

I do not necessarily disagree with these commentators’ observations on the ways in which reforms have impacted on teachers: I noted earlier my own concerns about, for example, performativity, managerialism and the nature of some sets of teacher competences and standards. However, where I differ with these commentators is in their tendency to imply that all current reforms will lead to the de-skilling and de-professionalisation of teachers. Indeed, it seems to me that some of the reforms I have mentioned may have the potential to extend, rather than restrict, the professionalism of teachers.

As a sociologist influenced by the contemporary approaches to the study of professionalism that I outlined earlier, I would argue anyway that what we are seeing in interventions such as New Labour’s in England is not necessarily an example of de-professionalisation in some absolute sense, but an attempt at re-professionalisation – that is, the construction of a different type of professionalism, considered by those like Michael Barber to be more appropriate to the times and to New Labour’s political project.

If this is the case, there may be possibilities for pursuing other strategies of re-professionalisation. It may be that new ‘prospective’ identities could be constructed as an alternative both to an outmoded traditional professionalism and New Labour’s version. It is surely not necessary to move from academic critique of recent reforms to an argument that teachers’ professional judgement, whether individual or collective, should not be challenged. Indeed, to this extent, the questioning of traditional modes of professionalism by New Labour and similar governments elsewhere trades upon legitimate concerns about who has the right to make decisions about public education in a democracy.

Hence, I am not entirely persuaded by the alternative solutions that academic commentators have typically offered so far. While these sometimes include calls for the ‘democratisation’ of the profession, they do not amount to the sort of ‘democratic professionalism’ that I would advocate. For example, although Leaton-Gray’s (2006) conception of a more engaged professionalism properly entails fuller engagement of teachers with their professional associations, it ultimately looks rather too much like a traditional understanding of professionalism – with an emphasis on teachers exerting greater influence over policy and extending their autonomy as an end in itself. This is perhaps not the best way to win friends and influence people.

As Lawton argued many years ago, there are different levels of decision making in education and the further one gets from the individual encounter in the classroom, the more other stakeholders need to be involved (Lawton, 1980). But even in the classroom, the active role of other adults and, indeed, students themselves is increasingly recognised as important in the development of appropriate learning environments (Fielding and Rudduck, nd; Fielding, 1999). The capacity to collaborate with others, rather than merely instructing them, must surely be an important competence on the part of contemporary professional teachers. In England, the expanding role of teaching assistants is a case in point. Similarly, both the English and Northern Ireland education departments are looking more closely at school councils and other mechanisms for pupil involvement in decision making in schools (OFMDFM, 2004; Adonis, 2005)

With regard to teacher education, I have never taken the view that the government-defined standards cannot encapsulate the requirements of a forward-looking professionalism. And as I indicated earlier, even the officially specified competences and standards have now begun to modify the narrow technicist model of professionalism, initially in Northern Ireland but subsequently in England. Furthermore, the developments around the children’s agenda broadly defined will require a move away from purely cognitive targets for education and are likely to require some rebalancing of the standards and inclusion agendas. In my view, these are positive changes that should be welcomed and capitalised upon by teachers as extending their influence, but in partnership with others.

In the parallel example of nursing and related professions, Gough (2000/01: 33) pointedly suggests that, in an era of patient empowerment, ‘enabling people around us to change is dependent on transforming ourselves first’. Advocates of a new style of professionalism within these occupations have seen the managerial reforms associated with markets and consumerism as offering possibilities for partnership, collaboration and reflective practice more suited to contemporary conceptions of citizenship and democracy than are traditional modes of professionalism within the health service. Thus Gough argues that empowering patients involves unpicking ‘old style professionalism’ and demands a new emphasis on ‘how the patient can be best served through new ways of working – not shoring up old professional demarcations and engaging in endless turf wars’.

Implications for the General Teaching Councils

I now turn to the question of how such developments position the General Teaching Councils for England, Wales and Northern Ireland – arguably New Labour’s one direct intervention in relation to teacher professionalism.

Established between 2000 and 2002, the General Teaching Councils each place raising the status of teaching and maintaining and promoting the highest standards of professional practice at the heart of their remit. At the time, the establishment of the Councils was seen by some as the turning point at which teaching had become a bone fide profession in terms of the traditional characteristics of a profession that I referred to earlier. This was especially so when they went on to develop codes of professional conduct. This aspect of the Councils is also reflected in the current membership of their governing councils – with the exclusion from membership of other sections of the school workforce and, certainly in England, the limited influence of other stakeholders.

Having achieved, at least in some respects, the century-long occupational project of making teaching a profession in the traditional sense, it hardly seems fair to suggest that further change may be necessary. But we do need to consider whether, if the respective Councils are to maximise the positive influence of teachers in the changing context I have described, this is the model that serves them best.

The dilemma about which way to go in response to recent developments is already evident in debates within England, and I would be surprised if similar issues did not arise in Northern Ireland. Take, for example, some reflections on the part of the Chief Executive of the GTC for England, Carol Adams, regarding the children’s agenda. As Carol notes, this agenda – and similar developments in Northern Ireland – raises a number of considerations for the teaching profession and its representative bodies. On the one hand, could pupils, parents and the wider community become confused about the unique role and contribution of the teacher? Could a child’s right to learn be threatened by the new multi-disciplinary agenda? While Carol herself welcomes many aspects of the new agenda, she argues that we need ‘to hold fast to the simple premise that a school is a centre of learning’ and thereby be clear about the role of the teacher (Adams, 2005).

On the other hand, this does not necessarily require a defensive, exclusionary and inward looking stance on the part of teachers. Indeed, if the key question is how can teachers maximise children’s opportunities to learn, that can only be achieved by working ever more closely with the other stakeholders. Bringing about the conditions in which all young people can realistically, in the GTCE’s own words, ‘access the best possible standards of learning and achievement’ will necessitate much closer working with other professional groups and with progressive social movements, as well as changing teachers’ conventional ways of working where necessary to support the positive aspects of the new agenda. What we must achieve is surely a balance between defining the teacher’s proper role and staking out the territory too rigidly. In this respect, it is good to see that the GTCE has recently questioned why the TDA and the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) are consulting simultaneously on distinct sets of induction standards rather than working in tandem.

Towards a ‘democratic professionalism’

However, it is notable that the GTCE’s concern here is to facilitate inter-professional working between distinct groups within the children’s workforce. But the sociological critique of professionalism as elitism could also apply to inter-professional agreements. In a democratic society, the professions also need to be open to the concerns of other stakeholders. For myself, I have no problems about the government’s demand that other stakeholders should have a role in education decision making, though I do have a problem about its limited conception of who those other stakeholders might be and about how it goes about seeking involvement from them.

In my view, genuine stakeholder involvement should be welcomed by the professions and the democratisation of professionalism should be adopted as an alternative to both the traditional professional project and the managerialist professional project currently promulgated by governments. A democratic professionalism would seek to demystify professional work and build alliances between teachers and other members of the school workforce, such as teaching assistants, and external stakeholders, including students, parents and members of the wider community. For many of these groups, and particularly marginalised sub-sets of them, decisions will have traditionally been made on their behalf either by professions or the state (Apple, 1996).

If teachers are to make a real contribution to the equity agenda as well as the standards agenda, they must work actively with others committed to teaching for a just society (Gale & Densmore, 2000; 2003). A democratic professionalism thus encourages the development of collaborative cultures in the broadest sense, rather than exclusive ones. It certainly suggests that the teacher has a responsibility that extends beyond the single classroom – including contributing to the school, other students and the wider educational system, as well as to the collective responsibilities of teachers themselves to a broader social agenda. Indeed, under democratic professionalism, this broader agenda becomes part and parcel of the professional agenda rather than being counterposed to it.

Sachs’ (2003) notion of an ‘activist identity’ for teachers goes some way towards recognising this. Her activist professional works collectively towards strategic ends, operates on the basis of developing networks and alliances between bureaucracies, unions, professional associations and community organisations. These alliances are not static, but form and are reformed around different issues and concerns. Activist professionals take responsibility for their own on-going professional learning, and work within multiple communities of practice. These develop in larger contexts – historical, social, cultural, institutional (181, see also Sachs, 2001).

In conclusion, democratic professionalism and this associated ‘activist’ identity require not merely stronger professional bodies and associations but ones that are themselves prepared to work in an open and meaningful way with a much more varied range of stakeholders. In England this is not proving easy, not least because recent policies have undermined both the morale of, and public trust in the teaching workforce. This, in turn, has limited the extent to which teachers can engage authoritatively with other stakeholders. In Northern Ireland, however it may seem to you, the relative standing of teachers is such that you are starting from a position of greater strength and confidence as you confront the need to work with others to help shape the progressive opportunities that are provided by policies like those relating to the children's agenda. I hope the General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland will grasp this opportunity.


This paper develops the analysis offered in my book Making Sense of Education Policy (Paul Chapman/Sage 2002). I am most grateful to Dr Emma Wisby for her help in the preparation of this paper.


Adams, A. & Tulasiewicz, W. (1995) The Crisis in Teacher Education: a European concern? London: Falmer Press

Adams, C. (2005) comments made at the GTCE ‘Battle of Ideas’ Conference 29-30 October

Adnett, N. & Davies, P. (2003) Schooling reforms in England: from quasi-markets to co-opetition? Journal of Education Policy 18 (4) 393-406

Adonis, A. (2005) Council business Guardian 14th December

Apple, M. (1996) Cultural Politics and Education Buckingham: Open University Press

Barber, M. (2005) Informed Professionalism: Realising the Potential. Presentation to a conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, London, June 11

Bubb, S. (2006) New teachers on the ropes Times Educational Supplement 3 February

Dainton, S. (2005) Reclaiming Teachers’ Voices, Forum 47 (2), 159-167

Davies, C. (1995) Gender and the Professional Predicament in Nursing Buckingham: Open University Press

Davies, C. (1996) The sociology of professions and the profession of gender Sociology 30 661-78

DENI [Department of Education in Northern Ireland] (1993) Review of Initial Teacher Training in Northern Ireland: Reports of Three Working Groups Bangor: DENI

DENI (1998) Strategy for the Promotion of Literacy and Numeracy in Primary and Secondary Schools DENI

DENI [Department of Education in Northern Ireland] (2004) Teachers’ Pay & Conditions of Service Inquiry: Final Report, Part 2 - Improving Conditions, Raising Standards and Negotiating Arrangements February DENI

DES [Department of Education and Science] (1984) Initial Teacher Training: Approval of Courses Circular 3/84 London: DES

DES [Department of Education and Science] (1989) Initial Teacher Training: Approval of Courses Circular 24/89 London: DES

DfE [Department for Education] (1992) Initial Teacher Training (Secondary Phase) Circular 9/92 London: DfE

DfE [Department for Education] (1993) The Initial Training of Primary Teachers Circular 14/93 London: DfE

DfEE [Department for Education and Employment] (1998) Teachers: meeting the challenge of change Green Paper London: DfEE
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