In this post, the editors of the new volume Flip the System UK, JL Dutaut and Lucy Rycroft-Smith, offer an introduction to the main ideas of their work. The book focuses on major issues confronting teachers today and what can be done, through teacher agency, to address these issues. This post is part of the Leading Futures series. Previous Leading Futures posts include a series on Future Directions of Educational Change and Alternative Perspectives on Education Reform.
JL Dutaut and Lucy Rycroft-Smith
Let’s begin with this simple premise: Imagine that your country does not have an education system. As a reformer or as an educational thinker, where do you go from there? What is your priority? How have you determined this priority? The premise is provocative. It invites you to start from scratch, to imagine anew. Adding in a Rawlsian veil of ignorance might further deepen the thought experiment to include concepts of equity. There should be schools, clearly, but what type of system would support high quality learning and teaching? How should you judge system performance? What agency would teachers have to instigate change and innovation? Your thinking quickly leads you to think of an educational future that is not incumbered by accountability, standardisation and privatisation.
In this thought experiment, you have allowed us to turn you into a politician. You have exercised a whole raft of decision making. In the effort of imagining a new education system, you have considered the consequences you seek, while discounting the strategies unlikely to achieve them. Did you give any thought to the agency of parents, students, employers and communities in your new education system? When the system comes before the people it is designed to serve, democracy has already been de-prioritised.
Who are we then, you might ask, to be publishing a book on system change? And where do we get the audacity to call for the UK’s education system to be flipped?
By ‘flipped’, we mean an ostensibly simple premise:
“Replacing top-down accountability with bottom-up support for teachers.” (Evers and Kneyber, 2016, p. 5)
As teachers in England, we have both suffered the iniquities of being at the sharp end of accountability and decision making in our education system. We found ourselves, and each other, at a dark time in our teaching careers – subjected to the full weight of accountability measures and the dulling grind of questionable professional development. In an effort to find a path back to the realities of the classroom, we met the editors of a book called Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up. This book changed our lives.
Fast forward two years, and we have published our own edition: Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto, a book that has added to a global movement and has begun to shift the ground under the feet of policy makers both in the Netherlands and internationally. We are proud to be part of a growing chorus of teachers calling for the re-professionalisation of their work – and to have written a call to collective action for the UK context.
Flipping professional expectations
Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto contains 37 chapters by over 40 teachers, headteachers, educational thinkers, researchers and policy makers – and it could have been many more, such was the interest in participating. The book brings people together who often disagree and finds a common cause among them.
“So I started researchED as a conference-based project to bring educators, academics, researchers, policy-makers and everyone else in the eco-system together: to present the best of what they knew, to challenge, discuss and learn.” (Bennett, T. in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, 2018, p.7)
“researchED, the brainchild of Sam Freedman (then advisor to Education Secretary, Michael Gove) and doctor/journalist Ben Goldacre (then advisor to the government on research in education) was handed to a high-profile teacher to give it credibility, yet in my opinion its purpose serves the government’s agenda very well.” (Kidd, D. in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, 2018, p.65)
Despite disagreement on motives and the very purpose of education, Bennett’s and Kidd’s views on teacher professionalisation offer complementary prisms through which to identify problems and potential solutions. For Kidd, politicians get in the way. For Bennett, they can’t help. Both agree that professionalisation is not only desireable but necessary, and offer unique insights into what it entails.
Not only does flipping the system transcend ideological divides, it also transcends the boundaries of the devolved governments. To a greater or lesser extent, the policy-as-imposition paradigm is the status quo across the UK. In England, it is arguably more advanced but it is unquestionably the case that that professionalism in education has been downgraded and devalued across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too. The impact on teacher wellbeing, retention and recruitment is evident.
“Today’s report found more teachers are now leaving before retirement than five years ago, and schools are finding it difficult to fill posts with the quality of teachers they need.” (NAO, 2018)
“A growing teacher recruitment crisis is looming unless greater support for teachers is forthcoming, the President of NASUWT Scotland warned.” (NASUWT, 2016)
“Welsh Government figures showed the target for trainee teacher intake in secondary schools and for PGCEs had both been missed in 2015-16. Owen Hathway, Wales policy officer for the NUT, said the pressures and stresses of the job were putting people off entering the profession. […] The Welsh Government said it would be looking into the “downwards trend”..” (Betteley, 2017)
“Speaking ahead of this morning’s conference, Ms McGinley said: “Schools are like pressure cookers about to boil over. Teachers are becoming more and more bogged down and are disappearing under a tsunami of initiatives – target setting, monitoring and evaluating.” (Rutherford, A., 2018)
Whether the cause of this is simply well-intentioned yet fundamentally misguided policy making – or a deliberate and sustained attack on public education from vested interests in the shape of what Pasi Sahlberg calls the Global Education Reform Movement, is irrelevant as far as Flip the System UK is concerned. In their original book, Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber make a strong case that the GERM is a destructive factor, but we feel no need to revisit old ground. Our book is resolutely about finding solutions and arguing for collective professional agency.
This is remarkably simple. It stems from taking the word – professionalism – and defining it, re-appropriating it with and for teachers. Indeed, we might say that we have flipped the very idea of professional expectations, no longer to be expectations of us, but our own expectations as professionals. All we ask is the wherewithal to meet them. The effect can be transformative It leads inexorably to reprioritising the agentic and collective nature of practice.
“An understanding of the nature of collaboration, joint exploration and learning also requires a reformulation of the nature of schools as learning organisations that are democratic, fluid and transformative.” (Gibbs, S. in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, 2018, p.133)
Indeed, in taking ownership of our professionalism, it becomes evident that ideas previously vociferously contested can be easily re-framed as complementary. There is room for pluralism in our vision. More than that, the very vociferousness with which they have been argued is revealed as a direct consequence of the disempowerment felt by educational professionals with respect to their professional identity. Disconnected from any effective exercise of power (in our classrooms, our schools or our national policy), teachers compensate by attempting to exercise power over what they can. Pedagogy comes to replace curriculum in educational thinking and ‘what works’ methodology usurps questions of purpose and ethics as passionate teachers take to social media to exercise some sense control over their very identities; such is the lack of agency in UK education.
Of course, methodology matters as much as purpose. Pedagogy matters as much as curriculum. But until we attend to agency in all the ways set out in our manifesto, teaching is doomed to continue to suffer the pendulum swings of political whim.
Five facets of professional agency
In collating the contributions to Flip the System UK, it became evident that there were five distinct facets of agency pertaining to education (pertaining perhaps to all public sector professions). Three, it seemed to us, defined that professionalism while a further two developed the context within which it can take root and flourish.
It is our conclusion that professionalism in education stems from:
- cognitive agency – teachers as consumers and producers of professional knowledge;
“Greater research engagement has the potential to lead to a more responsive form of accountability, whereby practitioners continually analyse and modify their own professional processes. Doing so requires teachers to have control over what they do in the classroom, and so the movement towards teacher research engagement has an intrinsic link to teacher agency.” (Firth, J. in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, 2018, p.22)
- collective agency – networks of teachers as self-sufficient developers and deliverers of accountability;
“Those of us who continue to regard teaching as a profession and ourselves as embodying professionalism in our classrooms and staffrooms already have a strong sense of internal accountability. Effective leadership, teaching and learning take place when that internal accountability is harnessed and celebrated.” (Clarke, Z. in Rycorft-Smith and Dutaut, 2018, p.40)
- ethical agency – teachers and networks of teachers as democratic, purposeful and community-oriented policy makers.
“Democracy involves shared decion making and building a joint vision through direct, deliberative and representative processes. […] Scholarship provides a means by which – practically and through drawing on evidence and theory – professional communities can menaningfully co-construct a vision. Activism involves building networks and communicating more widely the needs of the profession and the nature of education. Solidarity requires us to imagine our disparate sufferings as a common obstacle to overcome. Ultimately, to flip the system we need to construct our actions with respect to all four” (Watson, S. in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, 2018, p.74)
To create the conditions for this radical re-professionalisation of teaching, the social context must be one that fosters:
- political agency – the power of each professional to exercise their voice meaningfully (that is, with impact), to enrich accountability as a two-way flow.
“If more of the readily available expertise in the system was re-admitted into the tiny bubble from which current policy emerges, then ministers might begin to realise that [the education system is not broken and is not in need of urgent substantial change]. A period of ‘benign neglect’ would almost certainly be of greater value to schools, teachers and children than the culturally disconnected, ideologically faith-based hyper-activism we have suffered for the last twenty years.” (Critchley, J. in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, 2018, p.184)
- global agency – the power to compare and contextualise policy and practice from teacher to teacher, classroom to classroom, school to school, locally, nationally and internationally, to enrich decision-making at all levels.
“To everyone serious about education as an evidence-based profession for the maximum benefit of all: Reach out and take part! Participate in the live, ongoing multitude of voices – sharing, informing, communicating, collaborating. Do it with an open mind and you will not only get help when you ask for it, but also learn to be a better judge of what you encounter and make better decisions.” (Hjelm, S. in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, p.249)
The manifesto advocated by the writers in this book explores professional agency in the UK context, and in a global sense. Contributions from Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia and even a refugee camp in Northern France show powerfully the similarity of the challenges we teachers face, and the importance of subverting hierarchies to solve them.
They are complemented by a host of examples of grassroots collaborations that do just that, often despite the systems within which they operate. Teacher agency must be global, and we must connect across national and international boundaries to ensure we don’t keep repeating the same mistakes in different time zones.
Evolution, not revolution
Flipping the system means evolving and expanding our conception of educational professionalism, and it requires everyone to play their part if we are to avoid going around in circles.
So, let us end with this premise: Imagine that your country does not have an education system. As a reformer or as an educational thinker, where do you go from there? What is your priority? If you’d like to work with us on some solutions, Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto is out and you can contact us at http://www.flipthesystem.uk.
Let’s keep the conversation going!
Betteley, c. (2017), available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-40300850
Evers, J and Kneyber, R. (2016), Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up. Abingdon: Routledge.
NASUWT (2016), available at http://edgazette.co.uk/latest-news/unions/nasuwt/nasuwt-scotland-annual-conference-2016/
NAO (2018), available at https://www.nao.org.uk/press-release/retaining-and-developing-the-teaching-workforce/
Rycroft-Smith, L. and Dutaut, JL (2018), Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto. Abingdon: Routledge.