A real voice for teachers: teacher professionalism and teacher unions

It is increasingly fashionable to talk about the need for the ‘teachers’ voice’. This can be described as teachers having a say, literally a voice, on the issues that affect them. Some people use the term agency, or professional agency, to describe something more active than voice (after all, it is possible to have a voice but not be listened to). Professional agency might refer to teachers having meaningful influence – the ability and autonomy to exercise judgement, make decisions, determine outcomes and shape change.

The calls today for teachers to have a voice reflect the fact that the voice of teachers has been progressively marginalised over a period of very many years. Often the political parties that now claim to want a ‘voice for teachers’ are the same parties that have previously sought to exclude the teachers’ voice from policy debates and to close down the spaces in which teachers could exercise professional agency. Here are some examples of bodies with significant teacher representation but which no longer exist:

  • The Schools Council – set up to innovate in the curriculum, with a significant role for teachers and subject associations. Abolished 1982.
  • Burnham Committee – a negotiating body (set up in 1919) allowing teachers, through their unions, to negotiate pay and conditions with employers, rather than have them imposed by an ‘independent’ review body. Abolished 1987.
  • The Social Partnership – established by government and some unions and highly controversial. Promoted the workforce remodelling reforms. However, love it or loathe it – didn’t matter. Abolished 2010.
  • General Teaching Council of England – a body established to promote the professional status of teachers and promote professional standards and professional development. Abolished 2012.

As the spaces for teachers to have a voice have been closed down, many other changes have had the effect of reducing teachers’ scope to exercise professional judgement. A prescriptive National Curriculum, government control of assessment and testing at all ages, the role of Ofsted and a growing managerialism in schools, have all had the effect of restricting and controlling the spaces in which classroom teachers can exercise professional judgement and autonomy. Democratic debate in schools, and about schools, is being closed down, and the concept of academic freedom (usually associated with higher education, but no less important in schools) is being dangerously diminished.

The consequences of the changes identified above are that teachers are being de-professionalised as their professional opinions are devalued and marginalised. The ‘voice of the profession’ is increasingly articulated by a small policy elite who are aligned with the trajectory of current policy reforms and who have little or no democratic accountability. It should not be surprising therefore if teachers become demoralised and despair at the increasing control of their professional lives. The result is growing disaffection and often the loss of many excellent teachers to teaching.

There is a need, therefore, to reinsert the voice of teachers into all levels of the education system – from the individual classroom to the highest levels of policy making (including global bodies ‘above’ national governments, such as OECD). This needs to be a voice that makes a difference – whereby teachers can claim to have genuine professional agency. Teachers need to reclaim their teaching.

In a contribution to the forthcoming book Flip the System[1], Alison Gilliland and I have argued that teachers should be able to assert decisive influence in relation to three ‘domains of professional agency’.

Shaping learning and working conditions. This recognises that the working conditions of teachers are the learning conditions of students and that teachers should not only be able to exercise proper professional judgement in their own classroom but should have meaningful influence in framing the conditions within which they work. One obvious example of this would be the return of national collective bargaining, still the dominant mode of managing employee relations in democratic jurisdictions including high-performing systems such as Finland and Canada.

Developing and enacting policy. ‘Policy’ frames much of what teachers do, whether it comes from government or is policy developed at school level. If teachers have meaningful agency, then they have a voice in determining policy at whatever level it is being developed. Policy should not be imposed but the outcome of genuine democratic processes. There needs to be a ‘re-balancing’ between teachers and ‘leaders’ in schools with the views of classroom teachers, and support staff, given due respect and recognition. Structures should be established in schools that formalise these arrangements.

Developing professional knowledge and professional learning. This respects teachers’ professional expertise and their ability to exercise professional judgement. Teachers need the space to engage critically with research, and also to determine their own professional development needs. Too often teachers are told what to do, and are then further de-professionalised by quick-fix professional development programmes that tell them how to do it. As with many other aspects of education, too much decision making in relation to pedagogical approaches and professional development is experienced as top-down imposition, often driven by the perceived demands of Ofsted. Current inspection arrangements are antithetical to notions of professional trust and autonomy, without which there cannot be genuine professional agency.

Alison and I argue that any claim to teacher professionalism must be judged by the extent to which teachers can claim to have genuine professional agency in relation to each of these three different aspects of their working lives. In many cases it will be quite appropriate that teachers exercise this agency as individuals. For example, teachers should be able to decide for themselves how best to teach their class, and what pedagogical approaches are most appropriate. Too often teachers are denied the ability to make choices over what should rightly be a matter of their own professional judgement.

However, if teachers are to be able to assert real agency, at all levels of the system, but in particular at higher levels where decisive power is exercised, then they must also assert their agency collectively. As Judyth Sachs (2003) argued so persuasively, teachers need to combine together and make their professionalism – agency is asserted by becoming what Sachs called ‘activist professionals’.

This is why, if teachers want a real voice in education, they must be willing to organise and to act together. Teachers already have many organisations in which they work together – subject associations provide an important example. Meanwhile a new body is being proposed to promote the voice of teachers – a College of Teaching. (I have argued elsewhere (Stevenson, 2014) why teachers should be sceptical of this initiative.)

My argument is that if teachers want to make a real difference, and to have genuine professional agency, then the most obvious organisations for them to work through are their unions. Only teacher unions have the independence from government that safeguards them from being used cynically to reproduce current policy. Only unions have the democratic structures that allow ordinary grassroots teachers to ensure the accountability of their representatives. Finally, only unions have the ability to speak for all of the teaching profession. (Government commissioned research (NFER, 2012) indicates that 97% of teachers are members of a union.) Unfortunately, in England, the voice of unionised teachers is weakened by being divided between many unions, and this is arguably one reason why the attacks on state education in England have been particularly effective. The challenge for all teachers in England is not only to work towards professional unity, but to realise the power within them by participating and engaging in union life and becoming ‘activist professionals’. They would then have a voice that could not be silenced.


Professor Howard Stevenson, University of Nottingham   howard.stevenson@nottingham.ac.uk


Further reading:

NFER (2012) Understanding union membership and activity, NFER teacher voice omnibus, available online at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/nfer-teacher-voice-omnibus-november-2012-survey-understanding-union-membership-and-activity

Sachs, J. (2003) The activist teaching profession, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Stevenson, H. 2014 Why teachers should be sceptical of a new College of Teaching, available online at https://theconversation.com/why-teachers-should-be-sceptical-of-a-new-college-of-teaching-35280


[1] Flip the system: the alternative to neoliberalism in education is edited by two teachers from the Netherlands – Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber. It will be published in 2015 with the support of Education International. See – http://www.flip-the-system.org/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s