A reaction to the College of Teaching’s announcement of the planned availability of academic journals for teachers

5 min read

I was pleased to hear that teachers in England would have access to research literature.  And I was pleased also that the most charming Dr Vincent Lien who had campaigned for access to journals had been acknowledged in this.

My first question was, which journals and how many? But I will assume that access will be to a range of international education research journals and perhaps some subject specific journals.

When I was teaching and growing an interest in research, I wanted access to education research but academic journals were,  by and large, paywalled. Frustrating. Because I also became aware of the tidy profits that the small number of publishers made. In the 2000s though, you could get access to a 10-credit Open University course for around £100 and this would give you access to just about every academic journal for six months or so. Indeed 30-credit and 60-credit courses were affordable too and for a few hundred pounds you could get access for 12 to 18 months. That has all changed now, since the Coalition Government brought in its economic policy to rebalance the wealth of the 99 per cent to the coffers of the 1 per cent. OU courses are now at least double what they were.

This is something of a diversion, but nonetheless important, since my engagement with academic research when I was a teacher was just that ‘engagement’, making sense of theory and practice across a range of disciplines: sociology, psychology, anthropology etc. How could I make sense of my practice in the context of school, policy, the community and in my classroom? How do I understand learning as a social cognitive, biological and cultural phenomena? How could I develop what I did? What are the methodologies and methods for such inquiry?

I was engaging with ideas, theory, concepts as well as results and findings. I was engaged in a process of scholarship. It was time consuming, I gave a lot of my own time to it, as I have the habit of blurring my interests with my work which seems to have been with me always.

This is my concern. In the last ten years teachers’ workload and the intensity with which they work has increased considerable. Accountability has become increasingly pervasive and poor performance is increasingly treated punitaively, though the notion of ‘poor’ is spurious. It has lead to a system of performativity, in which prescribed practices are imposed in pedagogy and assessment. It is difficult for teachers to find the time to engage in research in a scholarly way, to reflect on ideas and concepts in relation to their own practice.

So it worries me that since Michael Gove’s education reforms, teachers are framed as consumers of research, that research provides definitive answers about practice and about the effectiveness of different approaches. In a post last Christmas I wrote about the Book of Intervention, a satirical presentation of the Education Endowment Fund’s (EEF) Toolkit. It was inspired by a visit to a general practitioner who, when I described my symptoms – a heavy cold, as I recall – perused a large volume of listed pharmaceuticals and then presented me with a prescription: medicine that is the result of a randomised control trial. The Michael Gove vision for education research, prompted by Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, was that educational research should be ‘scientific’ and experimental. The EEF was established to do scientific educational research using randomised control trials. While educational researchers follow the scholarly principle of beginning their inquiry with a research question, the EEF begins with, in dogmatic fashion, a prescribed methodology.

Of course, this dovetails sweetly with Gove, Dominic Cummings and Policy Exchange’s freemarket neoliberal plan for state education. The codification of interventions and pedagogy, scientifically derived, reconstitute education as a quantifiable service and thus makes outsourcing and privatisation so much easier.

On the other hand, teaching is a complex undertaking, complex relationships and complex constructs of learning and behaviour. In spite of whether we know some aspect of teaching is good or bad, or whether we reduce education to a process of memorisation of facts, the complexity remains. Teachers cannot always replicate the practices that were identified in experimental studies, least those practices may not always be appropriate to the unique situation they find themselves. Constantly teachers are faced with varying experiences and interactions that calls upon their professional judgement.

It is my view that teachers should not be seen as consumers of research but as scholars in their own right, where they engage with research and use theory and knowledge to develop their own thinking in relation to teaching and learning. The latter is time consuming and requires more than referencing the EEF Toolkit, it is necessary to read mulitiple sources reflect and discuss with colleagues and academics.

So while I welcome the news that teachers will have access to journals, I think the Chartered College needs to be reminded that this and previous governments have set our schools on a neolberal course, one that has taken time and autonomy away from classroom teachers. It is the outsourcing and privatisation we should be opposing and we should be fighting together to ensure that teachers’ pay and conditions are adequate enough to permit them to be scholars in their own right and not simply consumers of research or worse still that teachers become deliverers of an experimentally-defined centralised curriculum.


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