Teacher Autonomy Part 2

February 4, 2018

Yesterday I blogged about the background to the issue of teacher autonomy and the dilemma facing traditionalists who, when progressives were in control, argued for autonomy, but now see it used to justify bad practice.

Although I still tend to favour teachers’ freedom to make their own judgements, I think what is needed is not a blanket declaration that teachers can do what they like, but rather it is important to follow a number of principles for when autonomy can or cannot be restricted. In particular, it should always be remembered that there is both positive and negative variance from any given model of teaching, and restrictions on autonomy should remove negative variance but protect positive variance. I think these principles will help with this.

Principle 1: Outcomes must be considered before processes. There is no point reducing teacher autonomy where teachers are already making decisions that result in desired outcomes. In practice this means that where teachers get good results, they should be left alone, or at least given only informal guidance. Where teachers are getting poor results, managers can be less respectful of autonomy.

Principle 2: Schools should be upfront about what they want. This is difficult when teachers are scarce, and schools would rather have a teacher who doesn’t fit the ethos of the school, than no teacher at all. However, there is nothing more likely to drive out good teachers than telling them once they’ve signed the contract how they are now expected to teach, having failed to mention it during the interview process. In particular, if you give somebody a job after seeing them teach in a particular way, then you’d better not tell them it is the wrong way to teach once they start working for you. A clear statement of what you want may reduce the number of applications for a position, but it will increase the chances that those you do appoint will be happy and be retained over time.

Principle 3: If you can’t write down clearly, concisely and objectively what you want, you have no right to ask for it. One of the worst features of the days of excessive observations and lesson gradings, was the feeling that you had to play a game whereby you had to guess what your managers wanted to see and, just to make it even worse, this would change between observations. Very many teachers can tell you horror stories of having changed their teaching style to meet what their last observer wanted, only to be told that this is no longer what was wanted.

Principle 4: The best justification for restricting autonomy is where a teacher’s behaviour will undermine colleagues. When expectations of effort or behaviour are lowered in one classroom, it makes it harder for everyone else. In secondary schools, whatever is normal becomes acceptable. If kids have even one lesson a week where rules are not enforced, then they will test every new teacher they have to see which rules they will enforce. It is consistency, not flexibility, that is vital for effective whole school discipline. Discipline policies should be clear and universal and no teacher should suffer for following them to the letter. Nothing has been more obvious from my experience of teaching in schools than the fact that in good schools teachers are told “you must enforce the rules” and in bad schools they are told “you are at fault for enforcing that rule”.

Principle 5: Don’t take the piss. Any kind of restriction on teacher autonomy can be misused to bully, undermine or force people out. If you are worried that the teachers will leave or go off with stress as a result of enforcement of standards then you should reconsider how standards are enforced. The nightmare scenario, for both school and teacher, is where a teacher is criticised for behaviour that is actually a result of the stress they have been put under by having their behaviour scrutinised. If teachers seem panicked, angry or disorganised when you observe them, then there is a strong possibility that you are not seeing what they are usually like. They will not improve if you point this out, they will get worse or they will leave.

Please notice that at no point here have I said “you can restrict autonomy where the evidence shows the best way to teach”. This is fast becoming the go-to straw man for critics of traditionalism, i.e. that we all believe that where evidence exists, then teachers must be compelled to follow it. Evidence does not overrule debate; it informs it.  If we were to enforce positions justified by evidence, then we’d soon be enforcing practices justified by some pretty shoddy evidence. First and foremost evidence should be used to persuade not to compel.

However, when you have a debate about methods and people say, “We do that anyway.”, or “Yes, I do that as part of a mix of methods.” then they lose the right to later complain that they are being forced to do it. The obvious example of this is over the phonics check. In that case, phonics denialists claimed for years that they were teaching phonics, they just differed about the best type of phonics, or how to mix phonics with other methods. Then a test was introduced that tested whether kids had learned phonics and they immediately complained that their kids wouldn’t pass it and it was forcing them to teach phonics. Nobody can complain that their autonomy has been harmed by being exposed as a fraud. Teachers should have autonomy because they can be trusted, and nobody’s autonomy stretches to a right to lie about what they are doing.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, please note that I have not argued against accountability for outcomes. This is not because this is always fair and reasonable, but because I don’t consider it to be an issue of autonomy. We should welcome being told what outcomes we are meant to achieve, if they are reasonable. Having agreed outcomes should improve our autonomy, if the first principle above is being followed. Of course, we could probably discuss for hours all the times accountability for outcomes hasn’t been reasonable, but it is not a bad thing a priori.



  1. […] my next post, I will discuss what restrictions on teacher autonomy are acceptable and what restrictions are […]

  2. Pretty sound principles outlined here, I feel. However, they are most likely to be effective against a background where teachers’ professionalism is openly and fully acknowledged by all parties – school, parents and government, and sadly, I think this has long not been the case. Training has been diluted and often teachers are seen as ‘delivering’ materials someone else has devised, with little room for, or expectation of, autonomy or professionalism. In the end, it depends on what we understand by schooling and education…

  3. One of your best, Andrew. Breaking up any orthodoxy can lead to a new one in a field prone to radical swings in the pendulum. Observing and assessing colleagues over 34 years in Canadian K-12 schools, I saw everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. Traditional teaching, done well, like Kingsley in The Paper Chase, leaves a deep imprint, I’ve also observed talented Inquiry/Discovery teachers achieving similar results. Are students learning —and if so—how well? That is the real litmus test.

  4. >>The nightmare scenario, for both school and teacher, is where a teacher is criticised for behaviour that is actually a result of the stress they have been put under by having their behaviour scrutinised. If teachers seem panicked, angry or disorganised when you observe them, then there is a strong possibility that you are not seeing what they are usually like. They will not improve if you point this out, they will get worse or they will leave.
    Oh how right you are about that!!!
    As for having defined outcomes to achieve, that depends on their being achievable in the first place. What’s more, the more time goes on, the less convinced I am that specifying outcomes in terms of exam results is resulting in good education. But what else would you use? Better to accept the inherent uncertainty in education and take a more holistic view of the interaction between a teacher and their pupils.

    • Secifying outcomes in terms of exam results is at least fair and transparent. Unless you are suggesting that we shouldn’t specify outcomes at all–pretty much what led to the public’s loss of confidence in the profession in the 1970s and 1980s–you are faced with the sort of non-academic goals which are almolst impossible to specify, let alone translate into any meaningful success criteria. You will simply be casting teachers back into the same swamp of subjective assessments by managers that–as you and Andrew aver–is a ‘nightmare scenario’.

      • There has to be a middle way. Exam results are as you describe; the problem rather comes from fetishising them as the *only* valid measure of success. There are many other attributes that are a valuable part of the educational experience and they should not be ignored simply because they are not easily quantified. We could start by accepting that exam result are a retrospective validation rather than an end in their own right. That way, the consequences of target-setting errors would be kept in proportion for a start.

        It comes down to the difference between valuing what you can measure or the opposite. In the final reckoning, exam results are a construct whereas cognitive/intellectual development is not.

        • I would think that cognitive development was reflected in exam results.

          • To some extent. But exams are vulnerable to cramming and other gaming devices thwt compromise them. All they really do is to test how well someone followed a particular course. There is more to learning than that. Anyway, the elephant in the room here is the assumption that it is necessary to have exams as a way of validating what *teachers* do – and that most definitely is not what they were designed for.

        • This passage from Kirschner, Sweller and Clark summarise the consensus from the cognitive sciences:

          “…long-term memory is now viewed as the central, dominant structure of human cognition. Everything we see, hear, and think about is critically dependent on and influenced by our long-term memory…problem-solving skill emphasizes the importance of long-term memory to cognition. We are skillful in an area because our long-term memory contains huge amounts of information concerning the area. That information permits us
          to quickly recognize the characteristics of a situation and indicates to us, often unconsciously, what to do and when to do it.”

          This thinking is finally being taken on board by exam boards, and is reflected in the latest GCSEs. As such, they now are fairly accurate measures of cognitive and intellectual development.

          I also think it’s pretty safe to say that schools that take their pupils’ intellectual development seriously are highly unlikely to be remiss in terms of overall development. Children who are achieving and learning are by definition developing a positive attitude to life, and the school climate is far more likely to be harmonious and conducive to personal growth.

          • I think the weakness in your argument remains in the last paragraph. I hope you are right – but that was not at all my experience of the priorities or processes of current schooling. And I still think that the scope of what it means to be a successfully educated/developed human is far wider than an exam can ever test.

  5. Great point on previously agreed outcomes. Autonomy with little or no accountability can lead to a great way of avoiding responsibility. Looking forward to your next post on what restrictions are acceptable and how it would encourage accountability.

  6. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  7. […] Teacher Autonomy Part 2 […]

  8. […] Teacher Autonomy Part 2 […]

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