Teacher activism, teaching unions, neo-liberalism: divided and conquered

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While I was a teacher in Cleethorpes and studying for an MEd with the Open University, I read a paper by Judyth Sachs about teacher activism, The Activist Professional [1]. She argued the means to reform state-funded education is through teacher activism. That teachers take the lead in professional and educational decision making. That they become vocal and assertive. And to bring about reforms in education, changes need to be led and implemented by those closest to practice, the teachers. Educational reform is only effective and sustainable through bottom-up activism.

I believed very much in teacher activism then as I do now.

All but a very few of my colleagues then believed in professional activism or that they had professional authority in their classrooms. Authority, for many teachers, was with the headteachers, local authorities and policy-makers. You see in the early to mid noughties, accountability was on the increase, examination results were becoming mission critical, Ofsted inspections were becoming critical to sustaining and developing a headteacher’s career. Local authorities were under increasing pressure to show improvement in the schools that they were responsible for. They also had a responsibility to implement the government curriculum and pedagogy programme: the National Strategies.

The school I was teaching in in the first half of the noughties was placed in special measures [2]. The headteacher resigned and a temporary replacement was appointed. A great deal of pressure was placed on teachers to teach in a particular way using a three-part lesson. We were expected to produce considerable documentation for each lesson, which was checked at random to ensure compliance. We were frequently observed and lessons were graded using Ofsted criteria. We even had an inset day in which teachers were placed in particular groups according to their Ofsted grade.

The acting headteacher was under pressure to show that the school was improving, that teaching and learning was improving and that the school leadership had capacity to improve further. His approach was to impose a regime of obedience and uniformity. This had little or no bearing or even consideration of developing effective teaching and learning. It was expedience in reaction to demanding accountability measures. Within the year I resigned and was offered a post in a neighbouring school. A permanent headteacher was found but the school has never really recovered. In subsequent years it has closed and reopened twice as a new school. The number of pupils at the school has never recovered to the levels that it had before it was placed in special measures.

There was a degree of outrage amongst teaching staff, the headteacher was demanding excessive workloads, feedback was brutal and not developmental. Yet, even in the well attended union meetings teachers would not take collective action. They were frightened. In the past, teachers had stood shoulder to shoulder to defend not only their working conditions but also their professional judgement in the class. Although many of my colleagues were members of a union, there was an unwillingness to collectively challenge what was going on the school and the inappropriate treatment by the inspectorate. Unionism and dispute had been denigrated and humiliated in the 1980s. First images and stories of union dominance in the 1970s, the final humiliation in the 1980s, particularly characterised by television images of the miners’ strike. By the noughties union action had been demonised, furthermore neoliberal individualism was divisive and encouraged colleagues to pursue self-interest over collective action. Unionism as a vehicle for teacher activism had been compromised.

Through the latter part of the decade Michael Gove was planning the Conservative’s education policy. In his white paper, The Importance of Teaching, published shortly after the Coalition Government took power in 2010, he weaved freemarket ideology into a vision of a teacher-led education system. He marginalised the teaching unions, the local authorities and university schools and faculties of education. The settlement on offer to headteachers was autonomy, the freedom to run their schools with minimal state intervention, even though we know from international data that school autonomy does not necessarily lead to improvement. He said to teachers, they know best. It was but a shallow offer of professional autonomy because accountability remains master. He cast the unions, universities and local authorities as “the blob”, they were a barrier to school and professional autonomy. Gove was effective in delivering a private freemarket ideology, but hiding it beneath a discourse of institutional and professional freedom.

As he rejected the so-called blob, he identified with neo-traditional teachers who had become well known through social media. They shared some common views about curriculum and pedagogy, rejecting progressive ideas favouring traditional authoritarian education and classroom practice. As a result the neo-traditional tweachers and teacher bloggers became the new teacher activist movement. They have become the voice of teacher autonomy.

Certainly this activism has created interest amongst the profession. No one can deny the success of movements like Research Ed. However, I do have a concern about the neo-traditional agenda that is being put forward by a number of these new social media activists. This reflects Gove’s ideology, with the teacher taking a traditional authoritarian role in classrooms and that curriculum and pedagogy has an emphasis on facts and fluency. More clearly emphasised is what neo-traditional approaches are not about, neo-traditional activisit often define their project in terms of it not being progressive, constructivist, featuring groupwork or discovery learning. Indeed their activism, they often characterise as being driven to escape progressive ideas that have been thrust on them by experts (e.g. academics and local authority consultants).

So where I have concern with neo-traditional social media teacher activism is in its narrowness of perspective. Its rejection of educational scholarship, ambivalence towards the importance of local democracy in education and ambivalence toward teaching unions. I fear they campaign for a false professional freedom, what is more it is dangerously aligned with freemarket and privatisation ideology which has the potential damage our education system.

Activism should not be progressive or traditional, it should not marginalise stakeholders such as the university schools of education, but should be pressing for a democratic education system, focussing on social justice, equality and high-quality learning outcomes. In order to achieve this, activists need to focus on the standing of the profession, its capacity to act collectively, to argue confidently using scholarly discourse. The profession needs to ensure that it can offer professional justification for what individual teachers do in their classrooms and influence how the education system is structured and organised. A strong activist teaching profession is symbiotic with teaching unions and academics. Teachers need to have voice alright, but they need the organisation and discourse to make it heard and deliver the argument. Acitivism needs to be campaigning against the real oppressor, that is policy that is ideologically focussed on privatisation, and accountability systems that work to support the agenda of political masters. The enemy in this is not educational scholarship, the teaching unions or local democracy.

[1] Sachs, J. (2000). The activist professional. Journal of Educational Change, 1(1), 77–94. http://doi.org/10.1023/A:1010092014264

[2] Special measures is the lowest rating given by the inspectorate, Ofsted. A school is monitored regularly until improvements have been moved.

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