The rise and fall of Teacherism

Martin Allen & Patrick Ainley on the politics of ‘teacherism’

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‘Teacherism’ has dominated education politics since the post-war period.  It continues to be significant now  but its influence is waning. The post-war education reforms enhanced the professional status of what had previously been a largely female occupation so that teachers’ professional project achieved its goal of an all graduate profession.

Professional status legitimised a ‘teacher knows best’ approach to the content and the delivery of learning.  In this the teacher would be well served by an army of university researchers making detailed studies of classroom behaviour and advisory staff who would deliver INSET. In the post-war years’ teachers were said to enjoy a ‘partnership’ with LEAs, but with the latter performing largely an administrative function. Yet teacherism goes beyond just reaffirming the ‘professionalism’ of teachers and comprises powerful, ideological assumptions about society and in particular teachers’ role within it.

One of the central pillars of teacherism is the unquestioned connection between the expansion of education and the economic wellbeing of society – education is key to increasing the stock of ‘human capital’ and, more specifically, ‘skill’ formation. Another is a strong commitment to improving ‘social mobility’ through increased educational opportunities. But teacherism also values learning for its ‘own sake’. Those who are educated are able to participate in a ‘learning society’ for in social democracy’s attempted reform of capitalism towards socialism, schools had a special place for Labour’s pedagogic project of educating the masses.  In recent years, however, not only has the job of the teacher changed fundamentally, but teacherism is on increasingly shaky ground.

Firstly, governments have decided that teachers don’t know best and have reigned in professional autonomy, imposing a rigid curriculum and a target-driven culture policed by Ofsted. This has increasingly deprofessionalised what became referred to under New Labour as ‘the teaching workforce’, degraded their expertise and turned teachers into trainers, coaching their students in the competences necessary to pass largely written tests and examinations. Together with the huge increases in teacher workload that have been a consequence, this has resulted in staff leaving in droves.

But professional identity has been eroded in other ways. The teaching workforce was augmented by a periphery of insecurely employed support staff, or instructors in the tertiary sector, upon whom core employees became reliant. Rather than being a collective entity – a ‘noble profession’ whose members share and extend good practice, teachers now find themselves in competition with each other to improve school positions in league tables, but also face a hierarchy of schools and universities.

Teachers have not taken these attacks lying down. A militant teacherism has evolved. Teacher organisations have ferociously opposed Ofsted and the SATs, though with limited success and worked in alliance with other trade unions against budget cuts and for the restoration of public sector pay levels. Yet despite all this, arguably the general assumption is, that if only governments stopped inferring in schools, let teachers ‘reclaim schools’ and were able to stand in front of their class (maximum  sizes of 30 of course!) delivering the curriculum their way, then all things would essentially be well – and business returned to normal.

Teacherism may yearn for the ‘good old days’ but rather than being a natural or an evolving discourse, teacherism is the product of specific social conditions, developing as an ideology within a period of economic expansion and limited upward social mobility.  However, it was responsible for neither of them.  Besides, gaining educational credentials, despite the ‘comprehensivisation’ of opportunity, remained of little interest to the majority of working-class children who continued to make transitions to the workplace via local and tradition pathways, or for many boys, through time-serving apprenticeships. These have gone long gone, replaced by successive failed attempts to ‘rebuild the vocational route’.  Meanwhile, a small number of (largely ‘middle-class’) university students could still saunter through courses with little worry about not getting a ‘graduate job’ of some kind or another.

The situation couldn’t be more different today as young people experiencing a dearth of real employment opportunities and ‘phoney’ apprenticeship opportunities, pile up qualifications and flock to universities (applications from school leavers have reached their highest ever) in hopes of securing at least semi-professional employment on a permanent basis. As a result, in an economy where qualification levels continue to grow at a faster rate than corresponding employment opportunities, rather than a social or ‘merit’ good adding to the overall value of society (as  teacherist thinking continues to assume), education becomes a ‘zero-sum’ game, where the success of one student can only be achieved at the expense of another.

Unsurprisingly, because it is a set of ideological ideas, the product of an occupational group, teacherist thinking does not confront these contradictions, neither does it address the future implications of  what is generally termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Second Machine Age for learning, apart from in a defensive manner  – with the new technologies threatening teachers  jobs still further. At best, it concerns itself with how AI might help reduce teacher workload, make ‘marking’ less time consuming and provide better information about student progress[i]. These are important areas, as are concerns about the increased role tech companies are playing in schools, colleges and universities. As of course are worries about how AI may be a threat to teacher jobs.  But it is also important to address how technological advances may change the nature of learning as we know it and alter the relationship between teacher and taught –empowering the latter at the expense of the former and posing questions about what sort of education should be provided, particularly in secondary schools.

[i]   See  ‘Is Tech taking over?’  Educate (May/June 2019) Magazine of National Education Union

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