Is professional autonomy overrated?

Professional autonomy is an attractive concept. Who doesn’t wish to be left alone to get on with the job when the tendrils of interference begin to bind their decisions? The removal of control is often perceived as a threat; our right to act freely sabotaged by a central power which subverts us from meaningful and righteous endeavour. The picture is easy to paint, but the pallet consists of only black and white. Professional autonomy is as much a curse as a blessing.

Teachers seem particularly taken in by the idea of professional autonomy. It would be strange to imagine other professions asserting their right to individuality so strongly. Where would the judge be without the the legal framework to guide their decisions or the doctor without a body of medical research to help their diagnosis? We are all actors within a system an each have a role to play.

The discourse around professional autonomy of teachers is emotive. We think of ‘centralisation’ as the removal of our autonomy rather than liberating us from having to do everything on our own. We are insecure in our professional status, fearing that giving up control over aspects of our work will further weaken our identity. In doing so we curse ourselves to forever remain generalists and carry a burden of workload, like Atlas holding the weight of the world.

If we let our anxieties go we could be free to become the experts which the education system needs us to be. But experts in what?

Sometimes change begins with adopting a new way of talking; a shift in vocabulary unlocks a new perspective. Rather than the hierarchical language of control, let’s think about our practice in terms of focal points.

A focal point is where our attention is directed, where all lines appear to converge. When we focus on a singularity we see things with clarity, to the extent that everything peripheral blurs, so as not to distract. Our focal point is chosen because it is important. We zoom in on the object of our interest and it becomes the centre; the calm at the heart of the storm.

What should be the focal point for teacher expertise, and what can we usefully treat as peripheral?

Of all the things teachers currently find themselves paying attention to, three seem to dominate; curriculum (including assessment), behaviour and teaching methods. Let’s consider each in terms of how much attention teachers give to them and whether they should rightly be the focus of a teacher’s expertise.

In secondary schools, teachers’ relationship to the curriculum is an odd one. At key stage 4 and 5, the content of the curriculum (‘what’ is to be learnt) is set down specifically, as is the means of assessing this curriculum. Text books define further the knowledge to be taught and there is little room for experimentation or deviation. Contrast this with key stage 3 where de-regulation of the National Curriculum (at least for Academies) and assessment has resulted in unrestricted freedoms for schools to invent and structure the substance of learning. In the post-levels assessment vacuum, schools have stepped in to fill the void and KS3 assessment has become a focal point for leadership teams. However, many schools appear to have relinquished their authority over the curriculum in terms of what is actually taught at key stage 3. Teachers have therefore often been left to their own devices, with feelings ranging from liberation to terror as they stare at the galaxy of their subject domain and ask ‘where should we begin to explore?’.

Is KS3 curriculum design the right focus for teachers? I would argue that it is not. Firstly, teachers will not all make consistently good choices about what is to be taught, influenced by their own educational experiences, interests and prejudices. Secondly, it is a grossly inefficient way to run a school system. I find myself faced this Christmas with the task of writing a scheme of work, updating resources and developing a knowledge organiser for our Year 7 teaching next term. In my (non-core) subject there is little to define what knowledge is valuable and age-appropriate, no quality text books and no national assessment methodology. If this is autonomy, then I reject it as wasteful and counter-productive. My expertise is in the delivery of the curriculum, not its design.

So if not curriculum, what of behaviour? Should this be a focus for teachers?

Sadly, in many schools it is. Managing students is too often a task ‘delegated’ by the school to the individual teacher. Standards of behaviour in such schools are seen as a function of the quality of teaching rather than of the strength of school ethos and systems. Behaviour therefore becomes a focal point for teachers, with much energy and attention given to the matter. Nobody benefits, particularly students, when teachers are given professional autonomy over managing behaviour. It is where professional consistency is most needed, where unified action beats unilateral action. If ethos and behaviour are a focal point for school leaders they need only be peripheral concerns for its teachers.

Finally, we come to the rightful and proper focal point for teachers; teaching methods. The expertise we need teachers to develop is in the art of instruction. Teachers are uniquely positioned to judge how best to teach the students in their class and, if given the required knowledge and support, should have a high degree of autonomy in doing so. Tragically, in recent years this autonomy has often been undermined by school policy which imposes ‘ways to teach’ which frequently contradict teachers’ better judgement about what is likely to be effective.

By failing to recognise what the proper focal point for teachers should be, we have created a deeply unsatisfactory professional environment. Teachers are asked to focus on curriculum design, resource development, assessment design and behaviour control, where these should properly be the task of others. And where teachers should develop and exercise their expertise, in pedagogical practice, they have been disempowered and frustrated.

The way out of this is to ensure each ‘actor’ in the system has the right focus. Here are some suggestions:

  • Re-define and resource a KS3 curriculum which removes the need for schools to invent and invest in this at a local level, such that teachers spend minimal time in resource development and curriculum planning
  • Increase scrutiny on schools’ effectiveness in creating a positive ethos and high standards of behaviour, such that behaviour becomes a periphery concern for all teachers
  • Develop a national professional development pathway for teachers, such that all teachers receive support in developing pedagogical expertise.

Removing professional autonomy in the right areas could be liberating for teachers, enabling them to focus on teaching and becoming true specialists in their field.



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