Would you admit to being a teacher today?

Would you admit to being a teacher? David Davies/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Would you admit to being a teacher today?

Would you admit to being a teacher? David Davies/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Are you a teacher? When you are at a party, a wedding or in the pub, and asked: “What do you do for a living?” – what do you say?

Why might you lie? Is it too boring? Too complicated? Much too likely to trigger stories of your new friend’s own school days? Or worse, to be open to a criticism of just how bad schools are today?

There are many parts to this complex problem. But there are three things that influence our thinking: government policy, research and our own school days.

Craft versus profession

A question that people training to become a teacher are often asked is: “What is teaching? Is it a craft or a profession?”

The Labour government, near the end of its term in office, was in no doubt that teachers should become an all masters profession – and even introduced a new national degree. The Coalition government that followed has had a rather different view.

For Michael Gove, the current secretary of state for education, it is “a craft … best learnt as an apprentice”. This change in opinion is not isolated, rather it is the latest step in an evolution that can be traced back several decades.

Flood of legislation

Fig 1: Numbers of items of government legislation annually since 1940. Author's own image created from data gathered at www.legislation.gov.uk

This chart shows how many pieces of school-focused legislation have been put in place in every year since 1940. Each bar is coloured according to the political party that was in power – blue for Conservative, red for Labour and purple for the coalition.

You will see that until the great education reform bill of 1988, schools were not much bothered by government. Then the number of pieces of legislation rose until it peaked in 1999 with 328 separate items – too much for any school to react to effectively.

Against this I have put the four ages of teacher professionalism identified by Professor Andy Hargreaves. These are:

  • The pre-professional age: when teaching was considered to be a craft and further training, after a very brief induction, was not needed.
  • The age of the stand-alone professional: when teachers were expected to develop, but as individuals in their own classrooms and signing up for any out of school courses that took their fancy.
  • The age of the collegial professional: when schools began to work as a unit in terms of the further development of their teachers.
  • The post-professional age: when teachers seemed once again to be viewed as technicians – just delivering education, rather like a milkman once delivered milk

If we put these four ages alongside the reforms, you can see a match between the level of legislation and the way teachers have been regarded.

Fig 2: Comparing Legislation with the four ages of teacher professionalilsm. Author's own image created from data gathered at www.legislation.gov.uk and Hargreaves A, 2000

So the argument goes: before the government was involved, teachers were thought of as practitioners of a craft. Once legislation increased, the view of teachers shifted towards the professional. With the increasing pressure of government, schools needed to react as a whole unit. Finally, from the turn of the century, teachers have been returned to the role of technicians. We have now come almost full circle, and teaching is being thought of as a craft again.

Research intensifies

In parallel with this, we should also consider the importance of the growing interest in schools and education as a subject of research.

For much of the early period of the legislation chart there was an opinion that schools and teachers did not really make much difference. Where you lived and who your parents were had much more effect. Then, in 1982, Michael Rutter wrote a book, 15,000 Hours, that demonstrated the opposite. From this point the level of educational research increased, and there was a large amount of research in the classroom and development of new ideas and ways of teaching.

In England, the founding of the Teacher Training Agency in 1994 and the National College for School Leadership in 2000 signalled further involvement of government, as research was commissioned and then used to direct the way in which teachers worked. This produced a move from the mainly bottom-up approach of the autonomous professional to the increasing top-down influence that contributed to the age of the collegial professional.

Study of the changing expectations of these two government-initiated organisations also show the change from the view of teachers as professionals to a growing technical emphasis.

We are affected by our own history

In the first, pre-professional age of teaching, who could new teachers look to as an example? In many cases it was the best teacher who taught them when they were a child at school. This still holds true today, but now there is a large body of research and knowledge that can modify and influence this starting point. So teachers can, and do, change their approach.

But what of today’s parents? They all went to school when they were children. They all remember their school days and their teachers, both good and bad. Their opinion and expectations of school will be influenced by these memories and it can be a lengthy task for today’s teachers to get them to understand the changes that have taken place.

So what, then, about the politicians who create the reams of legislation? They too all went to school, and unless they had a career before politics that involved educating children, their opinion too may well be based largely on their own childhood memories.

There are examples from the recent secretaries of state for education of people who did have just such previous experience, such as Gillian Shephard from the Conservatives and Estelle Morris from Labour. They were notable for the understanding that they brought to their role.

But what of the majority? Their teachers almost certainly belonged to the pre-professional age of teaching. Are they seeking to form, from the modern teaching population, a replica of how they remember it being done?

Where does this leave us all? Completely at the whim of our politicians and legislators? I do not believe this to be the case. Despite the external labels that are applied to teachers, there is considerable evidence that teachers as a group have a very definite and positive view of themselves.

For example, at the start of this school year in September, there was what can only be described as a flash-conference. Started by Tom Bennett and Ben Goldacre and marketed over social media, ResearchEd13 a day conference attended by more than 600 young teachers took place on a very crowded Saturday.

To listen to those who attended, all young teachers from a very wide range of schools, was to hear a desire to be informed about research and also to study their own practice. This is not the action or opinion of brain-washed and obedient technicians. It sounds much more like independent-minded professionals.

Again, the latest version of the Teachers Standards – the set of rules by which teachers are judged – includes the expectation that teachers should “reflect systematically on the effectiveness of lessons and approaches to teaching”. For many teachers and schools, this is being taken as permission to enquire and research their own situation.

Finally, and perhaps most confusingly, there are repeated demands from government to increase the qualification level of teachers. How likely is it that teachers who have themselves been educated to a very high level would willingly submit to being an unquestioning delivery vessel, obediently ceasing to question what they are being told to do.

A much more likely outcome, surely, is that they will always seek to improve their own work and hence the education of the pupils in their care.

This is a foundation essay for The Conversation’s new Education section. If you are an academic or researcher with relevant expertise and would like to respond to this article, please use our pitch facility.