Out of the bunker, into the fray

28th April 2006 at 01:00
With government control eroding autonomy, teachers might have felt 'under siege'. But Kate Myers discovers it is the frontline troops who will lead the march to change

Teachers Under Siege

By Sandra Leaton Gray

Trentham Books pound;17.99

Teachers Leading Change: doing research for school improvement

By Judy Durrant and Gary Holden

Sage Publications pound;19.99

Teachers Under Siege is based on the author's PhD about teachers'

professional identity in the modern age. The title of an early chapter, "The Beginning of Hostilities", gives us a clue as to Leaton Gray's position and takes us on a useful canter through the educational landscape from the 1970s to the present.

It is salutary to be reminded how much has changed since James Callaghan's tentative excursion into the "secret garden" of the classroom through his speech at Ruskin College in 1976. He was entering territory that previous Prime Ministers had avoided - the curriculum and how it was delivered - and laid the way for much of what has happened since. Leaton Gray charts the rise of managerialism within public-sector professions since the 1970s, illustrating the implications for each of the professions. For education they include reduced power of the unions, increased workload in response to accountability, and erosion of teacher autonomy.

The Education Reform Act of 1988 is compared with the Education Act of 1944. One of the consequences of the ERA that Leaton Gray discusses is the change from teaching as a vocation to teaching as a career and how this affects teachers' professionalism. One consequence of the shift is that there is no longer a perceived need for the teacher to be personally committed. All they need to do is deliver what is required of them through the national curriculum; quality assurance is secured through external inspection by Ofsted. Leaton Gray discusses the tensions these changes in expectations of teachers have raised. On the one hand they are expected to be professional and self-regulate their work by being reflective practitioners and continually developing their professional practice. On the other, they are required to conform to a model of professionalism that is regulated externally through inspections and league tables, which Leaton Gray suggests has long-term consequences when the profession becomes over-reliant on central control. She concludes that the growth in other groups with a vested interest in education has led to education professionals beginning to feel alienated, or "under siege".

The first half of the book is the most interesting; that is where the author discusses these issues and deliberates about how increasing government control affects the way teachers think about and carry out their work. The second half includes detail about the structure and rationale of her PhD study that will be of interest to other PhD students but may not appeal to the general reader. Perhaps not surprisingly, the participants in the study who were trained before the 1988 Act reported valuing professional autonomy, whereas those who trained after 1988, with no experience of autonomy, assumed that the current system of accountability was a natural part of their professional environment.

Teachers Leading Change reminds me of the apocryphal story of the education professor who is impressed by a school he visits but is heard to say on his departure: "that's fine in practice, but will it work in theory?". This book, deeply rooted in schools and individual teachers' reflective enquiry, demonstrates that the two are not incompatible. Research and action are shown to be a false divide.

Like Sandra Leaton Gray, the authors of Teachers Leading Change are concerned about teacher professionalism. They believe that teachers' active involvement is fundamental to school improvement and new concepts of professionalism. Their book will be of interest to teachers who wish to be proactive rather than reactive to the agendas described above. It will be important reading for anyone who wishes to undertake school-based research.

Working closely with teachers who are following a masters course in teacher leadership, Judy Durrant and Gary Holden are well aware of the everyday reality of school life. They discuss the notion of "top-down support for bottom-up change", a phrase gaining currency in the US, which suggests that real and sustained change will only happen when teachers support it.

The bulk of the book is about the use of enquiry to support teachers leading change. A useful section addresses what kind of evidence should be sought, how to find it and how to make sense of it. In analysing and interpreting the evidence, readers are advised continually to return to the central question about how their research is leading to school improvement.

Reflecting on the countless teachers they have worked with, the authors believe that teachers who work in this way find successful change comes about not only through changing policies, practices and procedures but also as a result of modifying their own attitudes, values and beliefs. They argue that there is persuasive evidence of a clear link between enquiry and growth in teachers' capacity to plan, implement and evaluate change.

Kate Myers is senior associate in leadership for learning at the University of Cambridge and an adviser for the London Schools Challenge

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