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Who are the change agents?

I decided long ago to avoid commenting on party political matters. Like many students in the late 1960s and early 70s, I got caught up in all the obvious protests – we stopped the traffic when the Bloody Sunday killings took place in Belfast, we stormed the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square to express our horror at the Vietnam war and so on. The young people I hung around with were like the biker character played by Marlon Brando in ‘The Wild One’. Someone says “Hey, Jonny, what are you rebelling against?” and he says: “Whadda you got?”. But then I got sick of attending student union meetings where we were expected to vote on a motion to call for the nationalisation of the banks. I eventually arrived at a clear decision: I did want to change society, but the best way for me to contribute to that was by becoming a teacher.

I suppose there may be some teachers who don’t see themselves as agents in social reconstruction, but I was persuaded by what I read about the part that schooling plays in the continual reconstruction of the unequal structure of society. Michael Young’s edited collection of papers ‘Knowledge and Control’ was my go-to book and one of its contributing authors, Basil Bernstein published a now much cited paper, ‘Education cannot compensate for society’. Apparently, some interpreted this perspective as being unhelpful to the cause of comprehensive education, but I was amongst those who found it useful to understand just how social reproduction works. For example, if it is true that some children are brought up in a linguistically deficient environment, we need to focus on literacy and oracy in school.

Here we go again

In spite of my opening statement about party politics, I feel obliged to comment on recent moves by Rishi Sunak (British Prime Minister). In his speech at the recent Conservative Party conference in Manchester, he made an announcement about replacing the current A Level exam for 18 year olds with what he referred to as the ‘Advanced British Standard’. Many private schools already offer the International Baccalaureate as a broader alternative to A Levels.

Beyond the substantive issue of the nature of the proposed new exam, what concerned me most was the all too familiar claim that someone in Sunak’s position could present themselves as being a change agent in the context of education. One commentary on this in the Guardian used words such as audacious and preposterous. My immediate response was ‘here we go again’ – the policy maker thinking they can flip a switch to change what happens in classrooms. Yes, we know that the exam system shapes what happens in classrooms, but the only people who can effect change are the teachers. I wonder if Sunak or any of his worker ants have really thought about how change in education really happens. As many have noted, such a change in exam and subsequent curriculum would exacerbate the staffing problem which is already at crisis point. Typically, Sunak resorts to the crass assumption that this can be addressed by an incentive payment to boost teacher recruitment, but this falls wide of the mark. The point is well made by the Guardian’s economics editor.

It is a gesture that displays a lack of understanding about what drives teachers to

educate the next generation and why they, too often, remain in the job for no more than

a couple of years before quitting. With no consultation with teachers’ unions or

reference to the experts used in previous education reviews, the move ranks as another

top-down declaration of intent. (Innman, 2023)

Sunak’s announcement about scrapping A levels is clearly a top-down declaration of intent, but if it is a serious aspiration, the government would need to recognise that the only people who can actually be regarded as change agents are the teachers. We have argued this and exemplified it in books such as ‘Empowering Teachers as Agents of Change’.

Teachers as agents of change

In reality, changes in classroom practice are determined by teachers’ values, knowledge and skills. It is the teachers who understand their local contexts, whether that be the children, the community or the school’s organisational culture. However, Innman’s point does not adequately capture this. Perhaps he, along with Sunak and his apparatchiks, assume that, as long as the unions and the experts have been consulted, we are good to go. Far from it. If change in education is to be authentic and free of unintended consequences, we need to have teachers at the centre of it. This is in part a matter of consultation as my colleague at Education International, John Bangs and I proposed in a set of principles for policy which included:

Policy should seek to establish the right to be heard and to be influential at all levels of

policy-making including the content and structure of the curriculum.

(Bangs & Frost, 2012: 40)

It is also necessary to involve teachers in the process of the development of a new practice. The common assumption is that once the change has been decided, implementation requires teachers to be trained, as if they were circus animals, but as I have argued elsewhere, the concept of training is itself deeply flawed. Rather, we need to empower and enable teachers to exercise leadership. Our work within HertsCam and the International Teacher Leadership initiative has shown that ‘non-positional teacher leadership’ involves the mobilisation and enhancement of teachers’ moral purpose and human agency. When we employ strategies to achieve this, there is a chance for educational reform; without it, declarations of intent from politicians are just noise.

In spite of my misgivings, I am glad about Sunak’s declaration. In Robert Harris’ wonderful novel, Imperium, he has Cicero say this:

if you find yourself stuck in politics, the thing to do is start a fight - start a fight, even if

you do not know how you are going to win it, because it is only when a fight is on, and

everything is in motion, that you can hope to see your way through.

Perhaps the idea that we could even contemplate replacing A levels will lead to a scrap, one in which those interested in innovation will slug it out with the traditionalists. Maybe this would mean a chance for the teachers – and not just their unions – to get involved and throw a few punches. But then again, we know that teachers don’t do that sort of thing; they generally prefer to engage in rational enquiry and develop practice in iterative steps, taking account of the responses and views of students and their parents.

I don’t suppose there many policy makers reading my blog, but just in case, let me repeat my message: for real change to occur we need to find ways to mobilise teachers’ moral purpose, their agency, their knowledge and their creativity. We need an organised process which though which teachers to work together to develop a curriculum that will enable all 16-18 year-olds to realise their full potential.

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