We are professionals: The proletarianisation of teachers

Written by: Dr Alex Gardner-McTaggart | Published:
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The proletarianisation of teachers began in the 1980s and continues today. The impact of this has been revealed most starkly during the Covid crisis. We must once again recognise teachers as professionals, not workers, says Dr Alex Gardner-McTaggart

The teaching profession today is notably different to how it was just a couple of generations ago.

In short, control has been wrestled away from teachers, limiting their creativity and agency to execute lessons as they would like. Instead, numerous layers of management now dictate to schools both how and what should be taught.

This is nothing new; it is a process that started in earnest during the 1980s. However, in my opinion, this is an issue that must be constantly assessed and debated in the education sector, and there is no better time to do so than as society emerges out of lockdown.

The proletarianisation of teachers during the 1980s

We must begin first with an understanding of how the teaching profession used to be. Indeed, the key word here is profession – prior to the 1980s, teachers were seen as professionals, with significant control over both the creative process and execution of their jobs. They had more autonomy, creating a curriculum, syllabus or pedagogy, using their skills and intellectualism to facilitate a transferral of knowledge.

The picture changed markedly during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister between 1979 and 1990 (Gillard, 1998). Through a series of targeted reforms, the Conservative government restricted the power of teachers, limiting the amount of debate and discussion that would take place between educators.

Instead, the state began to exert more control over affairs, with teachers viewed more as workers than professionals. In turn, they would have far less influence (little to none) in steering education, with the market dictating matters.

It was a steady, relentless process. In 1984, the Conservative Party abolished the Schools Council, and it established the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, giving it greater control over teacher development.

In 1985, it abolished the Advisory Committee on the Supply and Education of Teachers, one of the last remaining representative advisory bodies; and in 1986 it abolished the Central Advisory Councils for England and Wales.

The most influential changes then arrived in the late 1980s. Ahead of the 1987 election, the Conservatives’ manifesto stated that the party would establish a National Core Curriculum.

Margaret Thatcher is quoted as saying: “We are going much further with education than we ever thought of doing before. When we've spent all that money per pupil, and with more teachers, there is still so much wrong, so we are going to do something determined about it.”

The Education Reform Act 1988 put this vision into law. The national curriculum was introduced, along with a raft of changes that would shape the education sector as we know it today.

Not all of these changes were negative, nor without merit, it must be said. Creating systems and processes, checks and balances, to ensure a high-level of education is delivered nationwide is something few people would argue against.

Nevertheless, it is has dramatically affected the teaching profession, and during the Covid-19 crisis it has become clear that there is an imbalance to address.

Resetting the balance

The pandemic has disrupted the education sector more than most. The partial closure of schools has caused immense pain, stress and strife for students, parents, teachers, education leaders and communities. However, it has also served to highlight that it is teachers – above and beyond any other factor – who are fundamental to the success of any education programme.

Teachers have shown courage and an indomitable spirit throughout the pandemic. Regardless of an increased likelihood of infection, teachers have kept the proverbial show on the road. They have demonstrated initiative in making new forms of online teaching work, and generating a sense of community through continued interactions with children.

It has been a timely and important reminder that it is teachers who are the direct point of contact with students, exerting the greatest influence on a young person’s learning.

Crucially, as the reflection on those changes some 40 years ago illustrates, teachers have demonstrated such commitment and resilience in spite of being stripped of so much agency; in spite of having so much of their creativity stifled; in spite of having so much of the execution of their roles dictated to them.

To that end, now is the opportune moment to talk about how power can be wrestled back in favour of teachers.

Re-establishing teachers as trusted professionals

As lockdown measures are relaxed, it will be all too easy for the status quo to be re-established. But the return to classroom teaching cannot simply mean stripping teachers of their agency once again. Rather, we must engage in intellectual debate and discuss the teaching profession in greater depth in the months ahead to ensure positive changes are made.

Covid-19 has reinforced previous research findings showing that educational leadership only impacts student achievement when it is teacher-focused (Robinson et al, 2008).

As such, it is important that we look towards systemic reforms that empower teachers, harnessing the passion that has been so apparent during the pandemic and complementing it with greater influence so they can create and execute their own teachings.

To empower teachers would mark a significant shift away from the ideologies that have become so prevalent since the 1980s: that “the market is everything”, how “the privatising process is more efficient”, that “teachers do not need to have a say because we have people who can tell them what to do”.

Places like Finland and Singapore have set a progressive example to follow. They recognise – as used to be the case in the UK – that teachers are rounded professionals, and they warrant the creative freedoms to demonstrate their professionalism and expertise.

How can we best achieve this in a way that will improve rather than disrupt educational outcomes? That must be the debate that rages in the months ahead.

As Covid-19 has shown us, teachers are often left to resolve huge social challenges, such as inequality in students’ home environments. They demonstrate skill and stamina, compassion and resilience. The pandemic has shown us how hard teachers work – now it is time for society and the state to show that it values teachers as educated professionals, not as trained education workers.

  • Dr Alex Gardner-McTaggart is a lecturer in education in the Manchester Institute of Education at the University of Manchester and is the programme director for the blended online MA Educational Leadership in Practice.

Further information & resources

  • Gillard: Education in England: A history, June 1998: https://bit.ly/3t9llIJ
  • Robinson et al: The impact of leadership on student outcomes: An analysis of the differential effects of leadership types, Educational Administration Quarterly, December 2008: https://bit.ly/3nuKRHg


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