A new model army goes on the march

13th April 2012 at 01:00
RSA research argues for curricular freedom and different modes of professionalism for teachers. Adi Bloom reports

Teachers should be able to create and develop the school curriculum, rather than merely passing on something that has been drawn up by government policymakers, new research argues.

Louise Thomas, senior researcher at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), claims that the government's version of a good teacher is someone who is a transmitter of a fixed body of knowledge. So inherently important is this body of knowledge that the teachers' only role is to absorb it and to transfer it to pupils.

"Any genuine recognition that teachers could be curators or creators, rather than merely organisers of knowledge, is missing from government analysis for what makes a quality teacher," Thomas says. "Hence support for teachers to develop into professionals, creating and mediating knowledge, is likely to be absent."

The RSA's report, Rethinking the Importance of Teaching, suggests three new models of teacher professionalism: "democratic professionalism", "activist professionalism" and "research-based professionalism" (see panel, page 15).

According to the report, these approaches contrast with how teachers were perceived between 1988 and 2010, a period during which, the researchers say, teacher autonomy was undermined. The over-specific national curriculum and national strategies reduced teachers' role to keeping order, teaching to the test and following standardised curriculum scripts, the report says.

This has since changed, and a 2010 Department for Education document declared: "Teachers must be free to use their professionalism and expertise to support all children to progress."

However, the research says, there are significant obstacles to this. In secondary schools in particular, teachers have strong links to their own subjects and can be disinclined to consider new approaches to the curriculum.

"The schools are finding it more difficult to fit new approaches to the curriculum into formal curriculum time," Thomas argues. "Instead, space is made elsewhere, for example in collapsed days or extracurricular time ... Projects tend to add on to, rather than replace, core timetabled subject time at secondary level."

Equally, education secretary Michael Gove has said that he believes teachers to be patronised by the national curriculum, because it tells them how to teach. However, he has also said: "We have a compulsory history curriculum in secondary schools that doesn't mention any historical figures."

The research states: "There is a ... suggestion that teachers are perfectly capable of determining everything about how to teach, but that they are entirely incapable of using their discretion to judge what to teach, as if these two processes were separate."

The government has also said that schools should work together with their local communities. However, while teachers are often willing, this does not necessarily translate into direct community involvement.

In disadvantaged areas, the social and cultural difference between middle-class teachers and working-class parents may intimidate the latter. And this is often reinforced by physical distance.

Teachers' salaries mean that they rarely live in the most deprived areas. But, equally, they do not earn enough to live in the more affluent areas. And so they regularly live beyond the immediate community of the school, reducing the amount they have in common with their pupils' families.

Similarly, many teachers are reluctant to involve faith and ethnic groups from the local area in curriculum creation. Some argue that there are so many different ethnicities that it would be impossible to work with them all, but that to work with only one or two involves alienating the others.

Indeed, teachers are reluctant to ask local communities for support, even in the teaching of RE, as "there is a real nervousness ... about 'getting it wrong'," Thomas says.

However, the report adds, it is vital for schools to engage parents and local community organisations in children's education, "because of the clear impact on attainment this has.

"We have shown that teachers lack confidence in doing this, especially where cultural and professional divides between teachers and parents are greater."


Thomas, L. "Rethinking the Importance of Teaching: curriculum and collaboration in an era of localism" (2011). RSA.


Louise Thomas, RSA.


The Importance of Teaching: Schools White Paper (2010). Department for Education.



Knowing your subject and being able to manage a classroom are not sufficient skills for teachers in today's schools. Instead, they should be specialists in "knowledge and pedagogy, acting in collaboration with multiple partners," argues Louise Thomas, senior researcher at the RSA. She believes that there are three different types of teacher models for the new pedagogical era.

Democratic professionalism: In this model, the key role of the teacher is not to teach a specific subject, but to become "a specialist in knowledge and pedagogy, acting in collaboration with multiple partners," Thomas says. "As such, the conversation about what students should learn becomes a broader one."

Activist professionalism: This would require teachers to be socially engaged. "Activist professionalism ... emphasises the role of the teacher in promoting equality and social justice, as well as a leading role in the transformation of education itself," Thomas says.

Research-based professionalism: This would emphasise the role of teachers in creating knowledge about educational processes and curriculum development. Schools would work together with universities, each drawing on the expertise of the other. "Teachers become leaders of educational thought, not recipients of it," Thomas says.

The models are not discrete, however: there are significant overlaps between them. And each has obvious challenges. For example, few schools are currently equipped to act as research institutions. Nonetheless, Thomas concludes, each model "holds more promise than current narrow conceptions of teacher 'quality' and roles, not only for engaging the best and brightest potential teachers from all walks of life ... but also for means by which teachers can become the highly skilled facilitators of local collaborations in support of learning."

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