Speaking back to the numbers:

It's time for teachers to reclaim teacher professionalism

Teachers must act collectively if they are to speak back to the numbers and take back control of their work and their profession.

Professor Howard Stevenson of the University of Nottingham writes on the increasing pressures facing the profession, and how to take back control as a collective.

When it is stated in the media, or in everyday conversations, that pressures on schools are increasing what is really meant is that the pressures on teachers are increasing, because it isn’t ‘schools’ that do the work – it is the teachers who work in schools who do the work.

Teachers experience these pressures as constantly rising workloads, but also as increasing external control over what they teach and how they teach. Teachers’ space to exercise professional autonomy and judgement is being progressively closed down. I want to argue that only by acting collectively, and organising through their union, can teachers reclaim that professional autonomy – and reclaim their professionalism.

Datafication of teaching

The pressures on teachers come from two interdependent sources, each of which feeds the other. First is that governments increasingly see education as the means for individual nations to compete in the world economy. Education becomes part of the global race for economic ‘competitiveness’ and international league tables of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores become the measure of success. Policy is driven by data as ‘numbers’, and league table positions, become the only way that education ‘quality’ is judged. Meanwhile the obsession with numbers in education seeps into the education system at every level as individual schools are sucked inexorably into the ‘tests and targets’ culture.

At the same time, parents are encouraged to see education in similar terms. Parents are required to act as ‘consumers’, in which the relationship between parents and teachers isn’t based on trust but is reduced to a market exchange. Whatever parents may feel about the wider purposes of education, and what they want for their children, they too are driven to chase the target because their child is part of the race and success in the race is increasingly reduced to a number.

These processes are sometimes called the ‘datafication of teaching’. It is a clumsy term but one that conveys rather well the way in which complex educational processes, that seek to develop individuals in myriad ways, are more and more being reduced to a score – because only numbers can be compared, ordered, ranked and benchmarked. And who can argue with numbers? Numbers are ‘objective’ and ‘truth’.

Teachers have been experiencing the slow creep of datafication for many years. These developments, now accelerating, have resulted in a simultaneous process of work intensification and de-professionalisation which often reduces the highly complex craft of teaching to the equivalent of labouring on a production line. The drive to constantly improve test scores means that good is never good enough and more is always required. Teachers can never work hard enough, and should anyone show any signs of letting up, the data is invoked to compare and condemn. It is what educationalist Stephen Ball once brilliantly described as the ‘terrors of performativity’.

Chronic problems of excessive workload are now a global epidemic in teaching as teachers all over the world face the same pressures to compete in the global race that has no finishing line. The consequence is immoral levels of teacher burnout and ‘attrition’ (the rather emotionless term used to describe what is often the dashing of a teachers’ career and hopes).

However, workload isn’t the only symptom of these trends. Such is the drive to ratchet up test scores that teachers find they are less and less able to determine for themselves what is the most appropriate pedagogical approach for the children they have in their classroom. Assessment structures always have a powerful impact on pedagogy (for good or ill) and as the tests and targets culture has intensified, so too has the pressure on teachers to teach to the test. From growing managerialism to the creeping influence of ‘what works’, research teachers find themselves progressively de-skilled as what they teach and how they teach is increasingly determined by others.

Teachers experience these twin pressures of work intensification and deskilling as a loss of control over work. Decisions about the pace and content of work are being taken away from classroom teachers in a process of ‘deprofessionalisation’.

Collective voice can take back control

Teachers need to take back control of their work if teaching is to be the fulfilling work and lifelong career that it can be and should be. Teachers acting individually can perform heroics in the face of these pressures, but they are unlikely to be effective in bringing about change. Moreover, the personal cost will almost certainly be high. Rather teachers must act collectively if they are to speak back to the numbers and take back control of their work and their profession. There are many ways that teachers can work together, in professional networks of myriad kinds, and all these are important. However, there can be no substitute for organising collectively through union organisation as unions are the only bodies that have the broad representation and the organisational independence to confront the challenges described.

However, if teacher unions, including the IEU, are to provide this powerful collective voice for the profession, it is vital that the union is seen as the voice of teachers across all the issues that affect them. Too often teacher unionism can focus narrowly on traditional ‘industrial’ issues (pay and working conditions), while neglecting the so-called ‘professional’ issues that have a huge impact on teachers’ quality of working life. The way teachers experience work is not compartmentalised by a neat industrial/professional divide. Relentless standardised testing both drives up workload and undermines professional autonomy – the industrial and professional dimensions are too sides of the same coin. The only way to defeat these developments is to organise collectively to tackle the workload issues and simultaneously challenge the arguments that distort our education systems and undermine teachers’ professional judgement.

The pressures on teachers are considerable. They are rising inexorably and unsustainably. Teachers must take back control of their work if the education system itself is to be saved from collapsing under the pressure of hopelessly unrealistic expectations. This requires teachers to organise together across all the issues that represent the totality of their work – industrial and professional. Put simply, it requires the power of union organisation. Teachers cannot be the teacher they want to be, working in the type of environment they want to work in, without the collective power of their union. However, this cannot be a collective power that is separate from teachers and acts on behalf of teachers. Rather the power is realised when teachers actively participate in their union and work through their union to make their voice heard. Only when teachers act collectively in this way does real change become possible.

Professor Howard Stevenson is the Director of Research and Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham, UK.

Professor Stevenson’s research interests focus on both the school and higher education sectors. These include understanding the formation and development of education policy processes, privatisation in education, educational management and teacher leadership, school and high education sector labour relations/teacher unions and the investigation of teachers’ work/academic labour through labour process analysis.