An Investigation into Teachers' Professional Autonomy in England: Implications for Policy and Practice
The current coalition government in England has expressed its commitment to establishing an autonomous teaching profession. This study argues that such autonomy cannot exist in a system that is ideologically driven by market forces and neo-liberal policy. The best situation that most teachers can hope to experience – barring a seismic shift in material conditions – is an earned and scrutinised autonomy, which is an oxymoronic concept. It is argued that the tight control exercised by the state over what happens in schools through its promotion of market forces, reinforces the ideological nature of schooling in England. The theoretical and ontological basis of the study resides in an orthodox Marxist perspective and analyses the way in which neo-liberalism has formed the basis for the material conditions under which teachers currently work. It develops this idea to demonstrate how this dominant ideology pervades current discourse about pedagogy and curriculum, reducing such discourse to a narrower consideration of ‘standards’. It considers how this diminution of what the curriculum has become has, in its turn, had an impact on teachers’ view of their professional autonomy. Data are gathered from two rounds of interviews with 22 serving teachers complemented by some written responses from them. Six others with a professional interest in education policy-making, four of whom are headteachers, are also interviewed. The conclusion is drawn that teachers’ autonomy remains restricted, with any independence of action largely contingent upon the production of outcomes measured against limited, pre-determined and ideologically driven outcomes. The study identifies a disconnection between the aspirations of teachers with regard to their professional autonomy and those of some, but not all, headteachers. A further disconnection between the aspirations of teachers and the policies of central government is also identified. Significantly, teachers may enjoy more professional autonomy in those schools which currently, and possibly temporarily, enjoy market popularity. In terms of a contribution to the debate about teacher autonomy, the study demonstrates that, notwithstanding the effects of the current policy ensemble, teachers maintain a sense of what education could offer young people that goes beyond the existing, reductive models that frame their working lives.