Teacher Autonomy Part 1

February 3, 2018

When I first started blogging, and for several years afterwards, teachers were being forced to teach in a way that, if you were familiar with the history of educational thought, could only be described as “progressive”. Skills were more important than knowledge; discovery was more important than explanation; inclusion was more important than high expectations, and group work was more important than written work. The methods of enforcement also became more draconian at the same time. TLRs replaced responsibility points, meaning that if you wanted promotion you were required to manage other people, even if that meant half of the teachers in some schools were managers checking up on the other half (and each other). Inspections became short visits focused on ensuring that managers were carrying out their own ongoing scrutiny of teachers, rather than a week long chance to inspect everybody. Performance management systems were introduced that meant almost all teachers were treated like trainees. Lesson observations and book scrutinies, often based around very prescriptive checklists, became common. Teachers lost their autonomy. This was a time when teachers were often grateful if they fell through the gaps in the system and ended up working in a school, department or key stage where there was little management oversight, particularly if one wanted to teach in a more traditional way.  Many schools still scrutinise teaching, and criticise traditional teaching, even now, although it is fair to say that those of us who want to teach in a more traditional way have considerably more options available now than we did then.

At the same time as educationalists and inspectors were dictating our educational philosophy, politicians were still interested in accountability. They wanted schools to be held responsible for their results, and this, in turn, led to school leaders monitoring results and attempting to hold teachers accountable for them.

There was a contradiction here. The philosopher Onora O’Neill described it when talking about accountability in the public sector more generally:

Traditionally, the public sector exercised control by process. We often call it bureaucratic process. The private sector allegedly exercised control by targets. When the target setting was imposed on the public sector, the process controls were not removed, hence the problem of having to be responsive to and responsible for two completely different sets of controls whose coincidence is not guaranteed.

Both ends and means were being dictated, even though the prescribed methods were often not the best way to reach the required ends. School leaders were telling teachers what to do and then blaming them for the results of doing it. One school I worked in could not keep a head of maths for more than a year at a time, because they would be appointed in order to blindly impose teaching methods which would lower results, then they would be forced out due to the poor results. This was replicated at other levels too, inspectors were telling schools what to do, then judging them for the results of doing it.

In recent years, neither government nor inspectors require schools to teach in those progressive ways (although unfortunately some managers still do). However, much of the bureaucracy created to enforce methods still exists. The fear has been raised that traditionalists, once the supporters of teacher autonomy in the face of a progressive orthodoxy, will now become the enemy of teacher autonomy, crushing the progressive enemy within and enforcing their own methods with equal certainty that they are supported by science and an objective view of what good teaching looks like. When raised by progressives, the fear is often less rational, with claims that under the traditionalist regime all lessons will be scripted, or that even the most basic elements of teaching and good relationships with students will be prohibited. My (unwise) initial reaction is to laugh at those who stood by or even actively enforced, progressive orthodoxy, now claiming that teachers should be free to teach however they like. Certainly some who attempt to whitewash their past deserve to be called out for their hypocrisy. However, there is a real and difficult point here about teacher autonomy. At the very least, even if one were happy to remove all opportunity for progressives to teach progressively, one should still have a real concern that any method of enforcement used by traditionalists now will one day be used against them, in much the same way as OFSTED and the National Strategies were subverted from within during the 2000s.

In my next post, I will discuss what restrictions on teacher autonomy are acceptable and what restrictions are not.



  1. I don’t think the managers of any large organisation rely exclusively on setting targets or controlling processes, although you are right to suggest that targets get more emphasis in the private sector. This is to a large extent a reflection of their aims: profit and growth are quantifiable. This is not to say that these targets always work, but at least competition, takeovers and bankruptcies provide a corrective mechanisms.

    As Sir Michael Barber discovered at great cost to his reputation, things are not so simple in the public sector, where the ‘consumer’ seldom has much choice and there are few mechanisms by which they can voice their displeasure (or satisfaction) with services they must use. As everyone now accepts, targets in the public sector distort priorities, often grotesquely so.

    Yet at the same time, attempts to control processes simply don’t work very well, at least in not in an activity as complex and contested as education. AfL is a good example; as Prof Robert Coe admitted in 2013, “…during the fifteen years of this intensive
    intervention to promote AfL, despite its near universal adoption and strong research evidence of substantial impact on attainment, there has been no (or at best limited) effect on learning outcomes nationally.”

    A closer look by the CfBT concluded that AfL had never really been implemented; at most, schools were just going through the motions in response to the hype. In reality, there just wasn’t enough time or energy left after the obsessive observations and assessments (of both teachers and pupils) needed to feed the MIS.

    As a rare example of ministers getting things right, the current KS2 Arithmetic SAT couldn’t be bettered–it has ‘Nick Gibb’ written all over it. For my money, any school that obtains good results on this paper needs no oversight whatever in terms of teaching maths. Likewise, many GCSEs now have a substantial knowledge component, and the effects are filtering through. Reinstating the practice of regular tests–which were an integral part of teaching and learning within living memory–would go a long way towards re-establishing public confidence in the profession, and at the same time obviate the need for excessive control.

  2. Andrew – I identify totally with your blog post.

    At the heart of all that you describe is the lack of ‘upwards accountability’.

    As teachers were pretty much enforced to teach in certain ways which often did learners and their results no favours (plus resulted in untold misery because of the impossibility time-wise, and organisation-wise, to implement as instructed), there was no holding those in authority to account.

    I lived through the National Literacy Strategy multi-cueing word-guessing era which was, supposedly, non-statutory. As an ordinary primary teacher I asked for the scientific evidence underpinning the guidance because the multi-cueing reading strategies of the ‘searchlights’ made no sense to me as someone teaching children to read and write with an increasing phonics component and no guesswork. I could write a book describing the trouble this got me into locally as advisors were constantly challenged by the fact I asked for evidence. Meanwhile, my pupils’ results were the top in the authority with no acknowledgement of this state of affairs.

    I worked through an organisation, the Reading Reform Foundation – and as an individual – to challenge the orthodoxy and content at that time. I ‘evidenced’ everything I did in my teaching with pre- and post-assessment of what I proposed and delivered in several schools but was bludgeoned down by the system. It reached the point where the Local Authority ‘got me’ by saying I was a ‘vexatious person’ which was catered for in some legal policy or other. I abandoned the behind-the-scenes challenges at that point because my efforts were pointless.

    Fortunately, Nick Gibb investigated what the Reading Reform Foundation was pointing out about great results in various schools doing some form of systematic synthetic phonics with no multi-cueing word-guessing – and Nick worked so hard to ensure a parliamentary inquiry followed by Sir Jim Rose’s independent national review so eventually we got officials on board with evidence-informed reading instruction although, as you well know, we don’t have various academics and leading figures and organisations on board with this set of teaching principles.

    However, the problem then continued about lack of professional understanding amongst Ofsted inspectors – some of whom were also headteachers who were not persuaded or knowledgeable enough about the evidence behind SSP.

    I found it necessary to put in an official complaint about Ofsted’s official judgement of the school (deemed to be outstanding in every way) on behalf of parents with a special needs child who was subject to an illegal exclusion from the school. To this date, no-one, not anyone, in any organisation, would properly define, or admit to, the illegal exclusion of this particular child (whom I suggest represents so many other children of various ages and stages in education).

    The closest person to define an illegal exclusion was the, then, Children’s Commissioner. We discovered various papers written about illegal exclusions which listed the patterns, or criteria, for them – and the Chief Inspector stated that no school presiding over an illegal exclusion could be judged ‘outstanding’.

    What a joke. You know I have considerable knowledge and experience in the field of reading instruction, in observing practice in numerous schools in the UK on a consultancy basis, and this school had no clue about reading instruction, assessing special needs, providing evidence-informed practices and being accountable.

    I went through three levels of the official complaints procedure and was met by stonewalling and failing to address my request to investigate the detail of the judgements especially in the light of the lead inspector being informed by the father of the worries about the school, its provision and the extensive illegal exclusion. To describe the obfuscation of organisation after organisation we faced would take me considerable time and effort. Noteworthy is that the Children’s Commissioner also described this same total failure of organisations to be take any responsibility or interest in illegal exclusions. She also added, however, that she had no authority to investigate an individual case.

    The ombudsman of Ofsted also described that he had no authority to hold Ofsted to account.

    What is the point of organisations to look into complaints if they have no authority. What a waste of time and money.

    The essence of this message of mine is this, the lack of upwards accountability that we have in our systems is not acceptable. There are ‘policies and procedures’ that are quoted ad infinitum for organisations to defend themselves, such as Ofsted, but these serve only to kill off any criticism – valid or otherwise.

    There is only one light here, and it about individuals, such as HMI Sean Harford, who are at last providing an interface between an organisation as powerful and influential as Ofsted and the general public and the teaching profession. They are trying to be accessible and put forward human faces. This is long awaited.

    Meanwhile, however, we have a hefty response to years of draconian downwards accountability methods that have caused resignations, suicide, broken marriages and so on, of people banging on about ‘trusting’ the teachers.

    Recently, via Twitter, I questioned this notion. The issue is not about ‘trusting’ teachers – we cannot trust them to deliver the best education because they are not equally knowledgeable, talented, efficient, experienced. The issue is surely about SUPPORTING the teaching profession and providing continuous professional development as required. Trust simply does not come into this.

    Meanwhile, someone should look into this issue of ‘upwards accountability’ because as much as Sean Harford and others are doing their utmost to change the climate, the same ‘policy and procedures’, stonewalling and obfuscation is highly likely to exist that I experienced not so long ago.

    In the end, by the way, I had to drop my complaint because I could not get anyone in the system to answer the ACTUAL questions and requests I was making. The ‘systems’ proved impenetrable

    If I, as an extremely experienced debater and communicator, cannot penetrate the complaints procedure, how on earth will ordinary parents tackle issues of injustice and inequality?

  3. […] Teaching in British schools « Teacher Autonomy Part 1 […]

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