The changing face of the teaching profession

Updated Tuesday, 11th May 2004
Despite there seeming to be more pressure on teachers than ever before, it's not all bad. Ian Eyres and Roger Hancock look at the improvements in the teaching profession that have also resulted from recent changes

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School assembly

I retired from full-time teaching at Easter 1997 with very mixed feelings. I loved the job, especially the daily interactions with staff and pupils, but had become weary of the ever-increasing political interference in schools.Derek Gillard, headteacher

Empowered but isolated 

Primary school teachers can only look back in amazement at the changes of the past 30 years. In the 60s and 70s, the prevailing educational philosophy entailed a child-centred curriculum, where the boundaries of academic subjects and timetables could be blurred by project work and the integrated day. Much store was set by children's learning through 'doing', and enjoyment was considered an important motivator. Tests for selective schools (the 11 plus) were widely rejected as unreliable and unfair and the detail of the curriculum was decided locally, by local education authorities, schools and individual teachers; education was 'a national service, locally administered' and teachers were trusted to ensure children learnt the right things at the right time. Today, the survivors from that era are teaching in schools where every hour is tightly controlled via a detailed curriculum based on traditional school subjects and driven by testing and school league tables.

However, if some teachers look back on a golden age of professional autonomy, many found the experience overwhelming, especially the recently qualified. New teachers often had insufficient practical knowledge and there was little in-service support; professional autonomy could feel lonely. The core of primary teachers' preparation was a 'scholarly' education. It was considered that if teachers were educated people, then the ability to do the job of teaching would follow. For many, however, this essential practical learning did not begin until they had been appointed as qualified teachers! The system was increasingly criticised, even by teachers.

In addition, teachers were isolated from parents. As Bob Whithead, a former pupil of one Yorkshire primary school, remembers:

. . . there was a big sign at the gate saying 'No parents beyond this point.'It seemed that part of the teacher's professional identity lay in having special 'teacher knowledge' which parents could not share. Parents were discouraged from helping children with their school learning for fear that they would not use approved methods. A teacher's professional distance could border on arrogance. Even at a time when 'progressive' methods perplexed parents, many felt unable to ask teachers basic questions or communicate misgivings. In this context it hardly seems surprising that, in 1976, in a speech which called for a 'Great Debate', the prime minister, James Callaghan talked of the

". . . unease felt by parents and others about the new informal methods of teaching, which seem to produce excellent results when they are in well-qualified hands, but are much more dubious when they are not."

Callaghan's 'Ruskin Speech' is seen as the beginning of a political climate which has led to increasing government control over primary education.


School assembly

An end to trust

The 1988 Education Act introduced radical changes to schools in England and Wales of a kind that made it plain that teachers were not to be trusted. A new teaching contract stipulated a working year of 1,265 hours of 'directed time' (much more than the daily pupil contact hours) plus the requirement to work "such additional hours as may be needed to enable them to discharge their professional duties." A minimum working year, but no maximum!

At the same time, a National Curriculum laid out in detail what should be taught and how it should be assessed. It was made clear that the new tests (SATs), taken by all 7 and 11 year olds, would actually assess the achievement of schools. The whole package gave a strong message to teachers that firm direction was needed in order to make them committed professionals.

In 1997, the new Labour government pursued this centralising strategy with a vengeance. The so called 'frameworks' for the National Literacy strategy (1998), and National Numeracy Strategy (1999), laid out for teachers, term by term, exactly what they would teach children throughout their primary years. The government also specified 'whole-class interactive' and group-based teaching methods. Although guidance referred to the importance of children's active involvement, it was clearly considered more important that a prescribed body of knowledge should be passed down to them.

Teacher autonomy and professionalism in Scotland is still comparable to that which was around in England pre Education Reform Act, 1988. The degree to which control has been taken away from teachers is greatest in England, slightly less in Wales, less still in Northern Ireland and hardly at all in Scotland. For example, teaching assistants in England and Wales have taken on many teaching-related duties and are set to take on more. This is less so in NI and very much less so in Scotland.

All primary teachers, and many teaching assistants, underwent government produced training on teaching the frameworks - which are set out as easy to teach and test 'learning objectives'. The use of test results, published in league tables, and an aggressive inspection regime (Ofsted), which penalised schools which either scored relatively low in the tests or did not teach in the prescribed way, brought a uniformity of approach to virtually every primary school in the land. The frameworks, through being so detailed, gave the impression that the objectives hardly needed a teacher to 'deliver' them. Government seems to have wanted a teacher-proof curriculum. Recent proposals that teaching assistants cover lessons to help reduce teacher workload confirm this suspicion.

By the end of the 1990s, teachers had lost the three central elements that had traditionally given them their professional integrity - the right to decide what to teach to children, the freedom to decide how best to teach it, and the ability to make judgements about how to assess learning. Was it realistic to still think of teachers as professionals at all?

Bye bye loneliness

The days when a teacher could work in isolation are over. In planning, teachers are collaborating with each other to ensure children make uniform and consistent progress, and their lessons are monitored by senior colleagues.

Within the classroom, teachers are increasingly supported by teaching assistants, a trend actively promoted by government since the introduction of the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies. For most assistants, this has meant progressing from classroom maintenance tasks to taking responsibility for children's learning, and many have revealed valuable hidden talents. However, their allocation of teaching-related duties could be seen by teachers as downgrading their own professionalism. For their part, assistants may complain that they are paid on low manual rates of pay whilst teachers get paid significantly more for doing closely related work. In promoting the employment of classroom support staff in schools, the government has set up a workforce reform which is potentially explosive.

The role of parents, too, has come a long way from the days of 'no parents beyond this point'. Successive governments have cast parents in the role of consumers (with clear rights to complain), making it easier for them to judge schools by making expectations clear and publishing test results, by increasing representation on governing bodies and by giving parents a chance to contribute to the inspection process. Schools now encourage parents to participate in helping children settle when they start school, and invite them to be partners in children's learning. Most primary schools have similarly encouraged volunteer parents to support learning in classrooms, though the increasing need for households to have two full time earners is a countervailing force. Often, where volunteer parents are subsequently appointed to teaching assistant posts, they can provide a valuable link between home and school. These are desirable developments.


School children

All hands on deck, but for what?

Though the effect of continued testing is to raise test standards, some of this effect can be attributed to increasing familiarity with the test methods by both teachers and learners, increasing emphasis on preparation for the tests, and instruction specifically focused on the predicted outcomes of the tests.
Sean Neill, University of Warwick

Educational standards are being defined narrowly as that which can be monitored by inspectors and measured by national tests. Much as this approach is celebrated by government, only 6% of teachers in a 2003 survey considered them to be a reliable way of evaluating children's achievements. In the same survey, over 90% of primary teachers said tests increase their workload and make children feel stressed. Although this level of testing is not considered necessary elsewhere in the UK, for England the government is insistent that tests help 'drive improvement in all schools and for all children'. Nevertheless, as Sean Neill suggests, it could be that children are getting better at taking tests, rather than better at English and Maths, and that teachers are getting better at teaching to the tests.

The testing regime was bitterly opposed by teachers when it was introduced, and it seems that a decade and a half later they remain unconvinced. Teachers, however, are left with little alternative but to teach to central expectations: to teach the prescribed curriculum in the given way in order to achieve 'high stakes' test results. Those who have taught in different times must be wondering where professionalism is to be found in all this.

The new professionalism appears to be based on the elevation of what is to be taught as laid down by government. Teachers and classroom support staff are 'instructors' who dispense this curriculum. New professionalism is about the skill of delivering and monitoring the effects of this on children. It seems to be more a managing than a teaching role - hence David Blunkett's phrase 'teachers as learning managers'. The problem with new professionalism is the extent to which it removes teachers and others from local decisions about curriculum content and approaches to teaching and learning - this cannot be in the interests of children's deeper learning.

Old professionalism is based on the notion that education arises primarily out of an interaction - teachers and children working 'on' education together with high regard for the pupil's own interests. The source of professionalism lay largely with the teacher's on-the-spot judgements. Old professionalism, however, gave insufficient attention to the content of education and individual teachers were often left alone with the vast task of defining this for themselves.

Sadly, these two conceptions occupy somewhat polar positions. As is often the case in education, the pendulum swings much too far. Teachers in the past needed to attend more to the curriculum, but they also needed to open up their practice to parents and paraprofessionals. New professionalism has addressed these issues. However, there is now an urgent need to restore a central aspect of old professionalism, namely the freedom to make a curriculum interesting and meaningful to pupils. We fear that teaching to targets and to tests has caused much current learning in primary schools to be narrowly focused - a form of training rather than education in any profound sense. To deny teachers professional judgement through the low trust notion of 'delivering a curriculum' is to take the heart out of teaching and the soul out of education.





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