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  • Writer's pictureclairevharley

The Journey of Teacher Autonomy in England


Have teachers in England ever experienced autonomy? The level of teacher autonomy and engagement in knowledge creation reflects the prevailing cultural and political contexts of the time. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, the struggle for power in education has centred around the balance between government policy and professional autonomy (Helsby 2000). Changes in government, professional thinking, and recruitment crises have influenced what Whitty (2000) terms the 'professional mandate'; the relationship between the teaching profession and other organizations. While government involvement in education has always existed, it hasn't always been as extensive as it is today.


In the 19th century, teachers in England displayed higher levels of individualism compared to the present-day educational system. However, there are similarities in their roles. For instance, similar to today's teacher standards, 19th-century teachers were expected to possess knowledge of morality and religion. Teaching required moral qualities, religious knowledge, and functional skills, and teacher training emphasized individual study, higher education, and short, intensive training focused on instructional and pedagogical knowledge (James 2018). After this, the curriculum was much more fluid and adaptable than today.


For the most part, the curriculum was the battlefield on which the battle for power in education was fought, it still is today. Following the Education Reform Act of 1944 there was a push towards a more universal education system. However, by the 1960s, politicians referred to the school curriculum as a 'secret garden' accessible only to teachers, excluding government and the public (Helsby 2000). The creation of the National Curriculum in 1988 marked a shift towards a more uniform approach to education (James 2018).


During New Labour's time in power this shift towards universality made its way into professional development or CPD and there was a move away from individual teacher development, particularly in Initial Teacher Training (ITT), in favour of more instructional, what Taylor would classify as transmissive initial teacher training program (Taylor 2017). Professional development for experienced teachers and leaders also shifted towards institution-focused action, such as the National Professional Qualifications (NPQs) (Furlong 2014). Rather than the focus being on introspection and individual development, CPD became more about the movement of a cohort of teachers towards a particular aim or standard.


In the latter half of the 20th century, action research emerged as an alternative way for teachers to explore their individual interests and emancipatory processes, moving against the trend of transmissive or universally applied professional development. Furthermore, alongside the rise of academisation and Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) after the Learning and Skills Act 2000, the concept of a self-improving school system emerged. This idea combined various policy agendas, ranging from facilitating meaningful improvements in teaching and learning to pursuing international comparisons in higher and secondary education (Furlong 2014; Greany 2017; Wiliam 2016).


In more recent times, there has been a wider question about whether teachers engagement with research could lead to a re-professionalisation of teaching (Cain 2011; Furlong 2014; Goodnough 2010; Hargreaves 1996; Munthe and Magne 2015; Taber 2007; Taber 2013; Winch, Oancea, and Orchard 2015), this is by no means an uncontested area. Regarding educational research, teachers' identity is divided into two perspectives: one sees research as providing direction for improving teaching, while the other sees research as a means to stimulate intellectual curiosity for both individual teachers and school leaders (Cain 2016 625-26). There are questions regarding whether teachers’ having autonomy over decision making in their classrooms is a good idea (Day 2020; Jerrim, Morgan, and Sims 2023) and the extent to which research engagement is as wide spread as some may believe.


So what do teachers think about this? This is a relatively understudied area and one that I aim to explore through my EdD. It is essential to acknowledge the diversity within the teaching profession, with nearly half a million individuals comprising the collective. The varied perspectives and attitudes among such a large group make it challenging for any research to claim a unified viewpoint of "teachers think...". Additionally, the transient nature of the teaching population, with significant fluctuations in teacher numbers year-to-year (there are 2,800 more teachers than there were in 2021, but 42,997 have left the profession in the same time), further reinforces this point (Department of Education 2022 ).


Ultimately, there has never been a time where teachers have experienced levels of autonomy seen in other professions and has never really been part of what we do in schools entirely. I don't think that total autonomy would be useful for or desired by the profession, but is the balance right? I'd argue there is a time where we will have to make clear decisions about what is and is not a teachers' remit for decision making. Whilst different schools will see the role of teachers differently dependent on their context, in the midst of a teacher recruitment and retention crisis (Allen and Sims 2018), it is worth considering whether teacher autonomy will keep more people in the classroom in a way that may slow the downward spiral we are looking at over the next few years?


Allen, R, and S Sims. 2018. The Teacher Gap (Routledge: London).

Cain, T. 2011. 'Teacher's classroom-based action research', International Journal of Educational Research, 34: 3-16.

———. 2016 'Research utilisation and the struggle for the teacher’s soul: a narrative review', European Journal of Teacher Education, 39: 616-29.

Day, C. 2020. 'How teachers' individual autonomy may hinder students' academic progress and attainment: Professionalism in practice', British Educational Research Journal, 46: 247-64.

Department of Education. 2022 'School workforce in England; Reporting year 2022', Accessed 25.07.23. https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/school-workforce-in-england.

Furlong, J. 2014. "Research and the Teaching Profession; Building the capacity for a self-improving system." In, edited by BERA. London: BERA and RSA Action Research Centre.

Goodnough, K. . 2010. 'The role of action research in transforming teacher identity: modes of belonging and ecological perspectives', Educational Action Research, 18: 167-82.

Greany, T. 2017. 'Collaboration, partnerships and system leadership across schools ' in M. Earley and T Greany (eds.), School Leadership and Education System Reform (Bloomsbury Academic: London).

Hargreaves, D. 1996. "Teaching as a Research-Based Profession: Possibilities and Prospects " In The Teacher Training Agency Annual Lecture

Helsby, G. . 2000. 'Multiple Truths and Contested Realities: The Changing Faces of Teacher Professionalism in England ' in C. Day, A Fernandez, T. E Hauge and J. Moller (eds.), The Life and Work of Teachers; International Perspectives in Chaning Times (Falmer Press London).

James, M. 2018. "National curriculum in England: The first 30 years, part 1." In.: BERA

Jerrim, M. , A. Morgan, and S. Sims. 2023. 'Teacher autonomy: Good for pupils? Good for teachers?', British Educational Research Journal, 00: 1-23.

Munthe, E, and R. Magne. 2015. 'Research based teacher education ', Teaching and Teacher Education, 46: 17-24.

Taber, K. . 2007. Classroom-Based Research and Evidence-Based Practice; A Guide for Teachers (Sage Publications London).

Taber, K.S. 2013. Classroom-based Research and Evidence-based Practice: An Introduction (Sage: London).

Taylor, P. . 2017. 'Learning about professional growth through listening to teachers', Professional Development in Education, 43: 87-105.

Whitty, G. 2000. 'Teacher Professionalism in New Times', Journal of In-Service Education, 26: 281-95.

Wiliam, D. 2016. 'Leadership for Teacher Learning: Creating a Culture Where All Teachers Improve So That All Students Succeed', Learning Forward.

Winch, C. , A. Oancea, and J. Orchard. 2015. 'The contribution of educational research to teachers’ professional learning: philosophical understandings', Oxford Review of Education, 41: 202-16.

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