Recruitment and retention

Teachers must resist the squeeze on their autonomy

We must confront the growing centralisation of teaching to reverse the alarming declines in recruitment, retention and job satisfaction, says Daniel Kebede

We must confront the growing centralisation of teaching to reverse the alarming declines in recruitment, retention and job satisfaction, says Daniel Kebede

26 Feb 2023, 5:00

I have taught at key stage 4 and in the early years. I have witnessed the love of learning being sucked out of children and the joy of teaching turning into drudgery. I am not the only one. The crisis of recruitment and retention stems not just from problems of pay but from something that runs deep in our school system. It relates to questions that are fundamental to teachers’ work and identity – questions that teacher unions must swiftly address.

‘Teacher autonomy,’ found the NFER in 2020, ‘is associated with higher job satisfaction and intention to stay in teaching’. Yet the average teacher reports a lower level of autonomy to other professions. This is especially the case, says the NFER, for curriculum, assessment and professional development.

These findings are echoed by mane researchers, and you would think that the DfE, which never stops talking about evidence-based policy, would have paid attention to them. But the opposite is true. Since 2020, the space for autonomy has only narrowed. What is taught and how it is taught have become matters to be decided outside the classroom and the school.

This policy, which will increase alienation more than recruitment, has several drivers. At school level, some multi-academy trusts and school leaders are requiring a common approach to lesson structures, often citing Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. Nationally, we see the growing influence of Ofsted’s curriculum reviews and the government’s new agency, Oak National Academy.

The Ofsted reviews are a mixed bag. In some subjects they endorse aspects of what the teaching community would see as good practice. In others, they are based on ill-informed hostility to mainstream educational practice.

Powerful agencies are pressing down on classroom practice

Not surprisingly, educators have pushed back. The English Association’s saw Ofsted’s review of English as ‘selective in its use of research’, working with a ‘sparse evidence base’ and relying on ‘opinion rather than robust research’.  Meanwhile, in the journal of the Association for the Teaching of Mathematics, researchers from Loughborough University ‘strongly cautioned teachers and school leaders against putting weight on [Ofsted’s] recommendations’ for maths. 

Oak, which is promising a free ‘full curriculum package’, takes no account of such criticisms. It says that it will base itself on Ofsted’s curriculum principles and the pedagogic practice associated with Rosenshine. The government’s £43 million investment in Oak is likely to apply both persuasion and pressure on schools to take up its offer.

Add to these initiatives the effects of the government’s virtual takeover of teacher training and we have a network of powerful agencies pressing down on classroom practice and squeezing the autonomy of teachers. What is particularly shocking about this policy is that teachers are being required to give up their creativity in return, not for a model of practice based on serious research and ongoing consultation, but instead on one that is badly researched, dogmatic and dull.

The government’s new ideas imagine teaching as an activity that is all planned out for teachers who are content to deliver content worked out in detail by other people.  But the idea of delivering ready-made lessons runs counter to what brought many into the profession in the first place – a commitment to teaching as a dialogue with students, starting out from their unique needs and interests to develop their learning further.

The government has launched a battle for the soul of teaching. The stakes are high: either we defeat these moves, or face a future in which the deskilling of an exhausted profession will reach new depths. Over the past few weeks, teachers have spoken out fervently about pay and funding and we have learned a lot about the difference that good arguments backed by union organisation can make.

We must apply that lesson to other aspects of our working lives and rise to the new challenge of an unprecedented centralisation of curriculum. The NEU must now organise for curriculum change, hold conferences to open up alternatives and seek allies inside and outside the profession to create change. It must be our priority to reclaim an area of expertise which should be teachers’ by right.

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    • I am a teacher and this article is speaking for me. I don’t disagree at all with parameters and a structure to the curriculum, but my love of teaching and desire/ability to continue have been crushed by the degree of control and micro management. There is a problem for many teachers like me. Please don’t dismiss this as nonsense so quickly.

  1. Learning is a problem solving activity therefore teaching is too. Solving problems requires creativity therefore creativity is central to teaching. Creativity is an expression of power, of having a voice, and one of our engagement needs. Remove creativity and you inhibit teaching, limit learning and frustrate engagement. Pupils may learn but are not learners. Teachers may deliver instruction but are not teachers.

  2. Perversely, many of the concerns raised in the article where understood at the end of the 19th and early 20th century. Dewy, Read, Clegg and so on got it. Children learn best when they are encouraged to play, by becoming less afraid of their bodies, of speaking and this develops confidence and curiosity. As Schiller and the like would say, a ‘freedom from fear’.

    Naughty children act up, because they don’t know how to communicate or remain absorbed with any real intensity. So they seek attention, play up. Good teachers, take their time and listen. This is what teacher autonomy affords and a centralized system which organizes children into passive little rows takes away.