It is time we recognise teachers are professionals, not workers

Dr Alex Gardner-McTaggart, lecturer in educational leadership at the University of Manchester, says we have a rare opportunity to review the position of teachers

Since the 1980s, the process of increasingly saturating schools with inflexible curricula and didactic management structures has changed the face of the teaching profession.

To put it simply, over the past 40 years teachers have been stripped of much of their agency to plan and execute lessons tailored to the needs and capabilities of their students, with limitations placed on the creativity they can use to engage classes. Instead, education now lives mostly on a rigidly planned and approved programme.

This will come as a surprise to few. This culture of perceiving teachers simply as hired labour for delivering information has been ongoing since major legislative changes during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister. While the process has made a significant difference to the teaching profession already, that is not to say it is irreversible.

Indeed, I believe the role of the teacher is crucial, and as such freedom to do their job to the best of their abilities, and inspire the best outcomes for students, should always be subject to careful consideration and debate. With all of our learnings in education throughout multiple lockdowns, we have a rare opportunity to review the position of teachers – there will be no better time to reconsider how education works in the modern world.

The commodification of educators in the 1980s

To have such a debate, it must first be understood how exactly teaching has changed.

Before the legislative overhaul of the 1980s, teachers were viewed as professionals, with substantive autonomy over how they did their jobs. For example, there was freedom to create their own curriculum or syllabus, depending on their skills and knowledge to design a course of teaching which was more appropriate to the talents of the educator and the requirements of their students.

This changed radically under Margaret Thatcher’s premiership between 1979 and 1990. Through a relentless course of smaller reforms, this government began to limit the agency of teachers in the classroom and sought to restrict debate in the education community. In place of these old standards, the state began to exert more influence over teaching standards and practices – reducing the role of the teacher from professional to worker.

The establishment of the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education shortly followed the abolition in 1984 of the Schools Council, affording the state great control over the training and development of teachers. Between 1985 and 1986, both the Advisory Committee on the Supply and Education of Teachers, and the Central Advisory Councils for England and Wales were dissolved. By removing from public platform some of the last remaining significant representative advisory bodies, education leaders had little say in the ongoing, and increasingly radical, changes to their profession.

The most drastic changes were still to follow. The Education Reform Act 1988 enshrined into law a Conservative manifesto pledge to establish a national core curriculum, alongside a tranche of further measures that would go on to form the foundation of the role of the teacher as we recognise it today.

It goes without saying, but must be noted, that these changes were not wholly detrimental to the profession. In fact, many were merited and welcomed. Few could reasonably complain about any measure aimed at delivering consistently high-quality education to students from all regions and socioeconomic backgrounds, with improved checks and balances on performance and more rigorous standardised processes to review success.

However, it also cannot be denied that these reforms set in motion a gradual but substantial change in how teaching works in the UK. The Covid-19 pandemic, and its tremendous impact on education as a whole, revealed a troubling imbalance – one that requires urgent review.

Levelling the scales

For obvious reasons, education was an area of great interest as the pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns took hold in Britain. The closure of schools led naturally to severe consequences for many: students, school leaders, teachers and parents in particular. It also revealed to the wider public what many of us in education already knew – that teachers are the fundamental factor underlying the success of any educational programme.

While schools were closed, teachers demonstrated impressive initiative in planning and delivering online teaching, highlighting their importance by adeptly building communities with their students during a confusing and uncertain time. Despite the inherent risks associated with infections in schools, teachers rose to the challenge of the reopening of their institutions ably.

All of us have had a welcome reminder that there is no magic formula of national curriculum or sophisticated edtech that can come close to matching the value of a skilled, passionate teacher.

Accordingly, now is the time to consider the changes made to the profession in the 1980s. In spite of didactic management structures and rigid demands on their ability to teach, teachers have shown they can flourish when afforded the opportunity to do so creatively.

How we might wrest back control

With many other pressing concerns, it is natural that many will look to the end of the pandemic as a return to the status quo. I believe this thinking must be rejected. The education community, and its leaders, must now engage in a serious debate about the practices and learnings of the past year, and how they may influence the path ahead.

Teachers should not be asked to return to the role of information conduit. Admittedly, while the profession’s resilience and ingenuity through the pandemic should be applauded, this is not in and of itself a reason to demand reform. To that end, it should be noted that there is a wealth of longstanding research which demonstrates that education leadership has little impact on student attainment when it is not teacher-led.

Consequently, it will be crucial that any outcome of the education debate should include the empowering of teachers to harness the resourcefulness and imagination that has become so apparent over the course of the pandemic.

We can also look to the examples set by other education systems. For example, the likes of Finland and Singapore have blazed the progressive trail of affording, as was formerly the case in the UK, teachers the security to teach as they see most suitable, treating them as qualified and capable professionals.

The question is not whether our accomplished teaching professionals are up to the task, but rather how we can affect such change without causing any further disruption to educational outcomes for learners.

This would, of course, represent a marked shift away from the ideologies laid out in the 1980s. Covid-19 has shown us, above all, that teachers cannot continue to be forced to hide their light under a bushel. The emergence from the pandemic back into a more open society must be seen as the opportunity it is – the time is right to capitalise on the goodwill of society to elevate teachers back to their place as professionals.

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