Power and Its Effects on Educational Change: The Lead the Change Interview with Steven Courtney

This week, IEN features the latest Lead the Change (LtC) interview with Dr Steven J. Courtney, a Senior Lecturer and the Education Research Coordinator at the Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester, UK. He is co-convenor (with Ruth McGinity) of the research interest group Critical Education Policy and Leadership (CEPaLS) and an editor of the journal Critical Studies in Education. A pdf of the fully formatted interview will be available on the LtC website.

Lead the Change: The 2021 AERA theme is Accepting Educational Responsibility and invites those of us who teach in schools of education to accept greater responsibility for the inadequate preparation of educators for work in racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse P–12 schools and postsecondary institutions. For example, when educators discipline African American students at disproportionately higher rates, misdiagnose them for special education, identify too few of them for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, deliver to them a culturally irrelevant curriculum, teach them in culturally disdaining ways, and stereotype their families as careless and hopeless, the schools of education that produced these professionals are just as responsible as the professionals themselves. Furthermore, if scholars who study and document these trends do too little to make our findings actionable, then we, too, are contributors to the cyclical reproduction of these educational inequities. Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?

Steven Courtney: Oppressive systems cannot be dismantled until they are understood. Thus, we, as educational-change scholars, need to contribute descriptive, explanatory, and analytical illumination to national and international conversations, debates and policies, and to point the way to actions that will make a positive difference to the oppressed. This question highlights the consequences of giving insufficient thought to how power functions in education. We need to be clear that power relations are reproduced through education practices, structures, and cultures: these privilege some people and marginalise others, predominantly according to structural features such as race and gender. No educational change is neutral in this respect: all will either reproduce or alter these relations, and so educational-change scholars need above all to examine change in this context.

“We need to be clear that power relations are reproduced through education practices, structures, and cultures.”

Focusing on power and its effects, on context and empowerment rather than, for instance, on the supposed effectiveness or efficiency of any given intervention, is what makes me a critical scholar (see Smyth, 1989) — I discuss this in more detail in the introduction to a major new textbook (Courtney et al., 2021). My early, pre-doctoral research, for instance, focused on school inspection in England – this is a policy mechanism that appeals explicitly to school improvement, particularly for the most disadvantaged, yet can have a range of damaging effects on, inter alia, school leaders’ identities and careers (Courtney, 2012, 2016). The school inspectorate, Ofsted, was created in 1992 as a means of operationalising school choice in England (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different quality-assurance processes). Schools are ranked overall and in specified areas. These areas have changed over the years, but a focus on teaching, learning, leadership, and management has endured. Schools are ranked either “outstanding”, “good”, “requires improvement” or “inadequate”. The reports are publicly available and are intended to provide parents with the necessary information to choose rationally between schools. Through school-inspection policy, parents are constructed as consumers in a market. What interests me about school inspection is its potential to illuminate the tensions between structure – here, hyper-accountability – and school professionals’ agency and identity.

My PhD dissertation (Courtney, 2015) was recognised by AERA Division A, and in it, I argued that the long-standing policy of school-type diversification in England was predicated on conceptualising children as having fixed abilities and hierarchising provision accordingly. The mechanism — school choice — is legitimated through its appeal to the superficially neutral notion of the market, but this conceals the profoundly neoconservative primary objective of keeping children in their place, or social reproduction. I have written about this more recently with more explicit focus on how this relies on eugenics thinking (Jones et al., 2021), where socio-economic advantage is seen as deriving from genomic advantage, and is therefore hereditary. School systems in such an ideological landscape tend to privilege children’s classification over their social mobility; the aim is to provide an education appropriate to their potential, which is conceived as fixed and variously limited. When analysed systemically, these “limits” tend to rise with the children’s socio-economic capital, suggesting they are not limits after all but rather shaped by access to resources. This landscape, and the contemporary emphasis on corporatised leadership, constructs a certain kind of ideal school leader, who knows that, to gain status, they need to build an empire through acquisitions and mergers, adhere to private-sector, entrepreneurial values and methods and privilege the standards agenda. Perhaps more troubling they must also accept the fiction outlined above that children’s limitations are inscribed into their bodies, evidenced, for example, as accent, deportment, health and taste, and are thus discernible and educationally actionable.

My later empirical research has focused on education privatisation, particularly on multi-academy trusts (MATs), which are more-or-less homologous to CMOs in the USA (e.g., see Courtney & McGinity, 2020). Grouping more individual academies (charter schools) into MATs has been depicted in policy as an important educational change that will operationalise school autonomy — a key shibboleth of the Right — but Ruth McGinity and I conclude that MATs actually operationalise education depoliticisation, where the state transfers responsibility for decisions concerning education to (1) private, or corporatised institutions; (2) families (which is a form of privatisation); and (3) the caprices of fate. This shift in responsibility for policy formulation, rationale and enactment happens through the structure – here, MATs — but also through the language used in schools and in government. Inevitably, we see these effects playing out in how school leaders see themselves and in what they think they ought to be doing. For instance, Ruth and I noted that the MAT leaders we observed and interviewed spent a lot of time trying to work out what the MAT’s distinctive purpose and values were. The idea did not occur to them that, in a public-school structure, these do not necessarily have to be distinctive; common education values can be established at national level through public policymaking that is politically engaged and so is democratically legitimated. These MAT leaders are enculturated in an education market where branding is key and requires a USP, and where education values and objectives are delegated to them by the state, as arms-length parastatal organisations.  Any educational change has to be realised in the context of a clear understanding of how things presently are: illuminating this for the field is my main contribution. 

“Any educational change has to be realised in the context of a clear understanding of how things presently are”

LtC: Given some of your work challenging neoliberal reform efforts as well as how and leadership has been conceptualized (i.e., the “grammar” of schools) and thus enacted in schools, what would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?  

SC: The learning goes both ways, believe me: I owe a great deal to outstanding critical field-leaders such as Helen Gunter, Michael Apple, John Smyth, Gary Anderson, Pat Thomson, Jill Blackmore, Stephen Ball, Tanya Fitzgerald and Trevor Gale.

One of the main contributions that these scholars have made to my thinking, and which I pass on to the field, concerns the importance of theory, theorizing and conceptualizing in education (Courtney et al., 2018). Scholars can best explain and illuminate if they make good use of appropriate thinking tools – throughout my career, I have drawn on Bourdieu, Arendt, Foucault, and Queer Theory. All have helped me to re-frame my research in ways that bring a new and useful perspective. For instance, as Fenwick English (2016) has written in this series, ‘Bourdieu’s work underscores how vastly more complex real change is and why most of what we think of today as change is largely tinkering at the edges of what exists’. My own work with Bourdieu supports this analysis, demonstrating how leaders’ identities are invested in particular educational arrangements that make countervailing change unthinkable (Courtney, 2017).

Thinking about educational change in this way was one of the motivations for me to explore with Bryan Mann in the article to which you refer (Courtney & Mann, 2020), why it is apparently so challenging to achieve lasting change. The problem was articulated by Tyack and Tobin (1994) as concerning a ‘grammar of schooling’, comprising features such as teaching knowledge through subjects and age grading. Bryan and I argue that if we are to take seriously Tyack and Tobin’s assertion that the grammar of schooling consists in structures that organise meaning, then we need to discount the examples they produced: these, we suggest, are the product of organising structures and not the structures themselves. Following this logic, two consequences arise. First, the actual grammar of schooling comprises four overarching discourses: industrialism; welfarism; neoliberalism and neoconservatism – it is these discourses that organise meaning in education (and indeed, society). Second, the reified products of those grammars, which include the features identified by Tyack and Tobin (1994), require a new name. We call them lexical features, since they express and reveal the underlying grammar, and use them to explain the interplay of durable and more transient features of the education systems in the USA and England.

An important consequence of conceptualising change in this way is that it becomes clear that grammatical change is highly unlikely without state support. This means that changes achieved by individual actors, including school leaders, are most likely going to remain lexical. This runs counter to the prevailing direction of much school-improvement and educational-change literature, which holds the school leader as key to systemic change. Bryan and I would argue, in fact, that this is simply a belief that itself reflects the current neoliberal grammar, which fetishises the individual.

“The school leader as key to systemic change… is simply a belief that itself reflects the current neoliberal grammar, which fetishises the individual.”

LtC: In some of your recent work, you speak to the ways neoliberal policies and discourses (e.g., “getting the right people on the bus”) can serve to de-professionalize and dehumanize teachers. Such work has implications for how we engage in real and lasting change in schools as well as the type of institutions we wish schools to be. What do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice to address these issues in the field, in educators’ daily practice and interactions with colleagues and students alike?

SC: In “Get off my bus!”, Helen Gunter and I (Courtney & Gunter, 2015) draw on Hannah Arendt to problematise a suite of leadership practices and dispositions constructed as ‘transformational’, ‘strong’ and admirably ‘relentless’, using Collins’ (2001) business-oriented bus metaphor about effective leadership. We argue that Arendt’s four-part definition of totalitarianism enables understanding of such leadership practices and identities in high-stakes, performative audit cultures such as those contemporarily privileged in neoliberal regimes like education. These four features are ideology (the standards agenda); total terror (the real risk of dismissal); the destruction of human bonds (reducing teachers to data points through audit and dismissing them); and bureaucracy (concealing these radical practices through banal administrative “re-structures” and everyday surveillance). Importantly, all the school leaders I interviewed engaged in these practices and all thought they were doing important educational-change work that was sanctioned by the state and justified by raised student-attainment scores. And they were right. But the human consequences were either unheeded, never recognised, or unacknowledged.

School leadership has been atomised purposively, with school leaders in England encouraged first to act individually to gain advantage for their school in the market, and now in clusters through MATs. Calling this MAT-located practice ‘system leadership’ conceals the way it rarely extends beyond the MAT. What is needed is a structure to encourage local praxis that takes into account its systemic and human impacts. The General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) has helped work towards this objective in that nation: it helped draw up the Teacher Standards there, for example and so has a direct, important role in shaping the profession. Its English counterpart, The Chartered College of Teaching (https://chartered.college/), is the latest in a series of attempts to provide an independent voice for teachers there, and whilst it is perhaps too early to talk confidently about its impact, it seems to be making a good start.

Focusing on the systemic, re-professionalising and human will require a shift in thinking away from a focus on the entrepreneurial, individualised educational leader as primary change agent. Entrepreneurial leaders accept personal responsibility for fixing structural issues, and so they are popular with policy makers. The schools where such leaders thrive are de-professionalising, because corporate entrepreneurialism is not educative (Courtney, 2020). The two concepts have become purposively conflated through policy over many years in several nation states, including the USA (Saltman & Means, 2021).

LtC: Educational Change requires those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?    

SC: The field of Educational Change neither exists to champion all change, nor is its function to instrumentalise professionals in schools as reform achievers. Some reforms and reform agendas are harmful, as has been demonstrated by, for example, Ravitch (2014) and Gorski & Zenkov (2014). I have written about how technology has been used to intensify privatisation in US schools, taking the examples of cyber charters and predictive analytics using big data (Courtney, 2018). These are ‘difficult transformations’ that are legitimated through being labeled examples of ‘modernisation.’ As a result, there is moral as well as substantive pressure for teachers and leaders to get on board. I think embracing this approach would be a mistake, and borders on collusion with those who seek to further deprofessionalise educators.

The most useful way for those in the field of Educational Change to support professionals is to provide thinking tools and context to help them work out what enacting this change might mean; where in the wider scheme of national or global education reform it sits; what its conceptual antecedents are; and its likely impact on minoritised groups and individuals. In understanding educational change in this way, I have been greatly helped by important critical work by Blackmore and McNae (2021). They outline the differences between functional, interpretive and critical approaches to understanding school change. Briefly, functional approaches assume a more-or-less direct causal relationship between an intervention and student outcomes; interpretive approaches foreground contextualised experiences of change; and critical approaches ask who benefits, who loses, and how the socio-political informs sense-making concerning the change. Only once this thinking occurs should the focus of the practitioner move to how best to engage agentically in the change process, if at all. Here, the Educational-Change field is not short of intellectual resources.

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?

SC: I find it exciting that the field of Educational Change is increasingly welcoming insights from the critical part of the field, where the focus is on power, ethics and inequity. This seems to me to be appropriate as the field moves to a richer understanding of what needs to change in education. For instance, going back to your opening question, I note and welcome your framing of this fundamental problem as an often-insufficient handling of diversity, as stereotyping and cultural disdain. All these speak to the work that the critical field is doing in, for example, race (Watson, 2020), gender (Fuller, 2013) and sexual identity (Courtney, 2014). These are helpful in the way in which they prompt thinking about the inequitable effects of power on the change process itself, and on groups of people who are involved in the change. It is very good news for the field that educational change is no longer reducible to a tick list of de-contextualised factors that actors deemed key – often the organisational leader – ought to implement (see Blackmore and McNae, 2021, for more on this).

We need to take care not to lose sight of the importance of a well-funded public education system that is fair for all and whose values are educative rather than corporate.”

So that’s the field. Concerning the educational change that is happening right now in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I am less optimistic than those who see it as potentially paradigm shifting (e.g., Watson, 2020). It may well be that, but it is also an opportunity for those whom Bourdieu (1990) might have characterised as being virtuoso players of the game, who are in a position to change its rules to suit them. There is a reason that capitalism often favours disruptors and by extension, disruption: the notion of privatisation by disaster is well established (Fontdevila et al., 2017; Jabbar, 2015). We need to take care not to lose sight of the importance of a well-funded public education system that is fair for all and whose values are educative rather than corporate (Gunter & Courtney, 2020). 


Blackmore, J., & McNae, R. (2021). Educational reform and leading school change. In S. J. Courtney, H. M. Gunter, R. Niesche, & T. Trujillo (Eds.), Understanding Educational Leadership: Critical Perspectives and Approaches (pp. 237–252). Bloomsbury.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice. Polity Press.

Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap … and others don’t. Collins Business.

Courtney, S. J. (2014). Inadvertently queer school leadership amongst lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) school leaders. Organization, 21(3), 383–399. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350508413519762

Courtney, S. J. (2015). Investigating Schoo Leadership at a Time of System Diversity, Competition and Flux. University of Manchester.

Courtney, S. J. (2016). Post-panopticism and school inspection in England. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 37(4), 623–642. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2014.965806

Courtney, S. J. (2017). Corporatising school leadership through hysteresis. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 38(7), 1054–1067. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2016.1245131

Courtney, S. J. (2018). Privatising educational leadership through technology in the Trumpian era. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 50(1), 23–31. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220620.2017.1395826

Courtney, S. J. (2020). Why you should reject entrepreneurial leadership. In J. S. Brooks & A. Heffernan (Eds.), The School Leadership Survival Guide: What to Do when Things Go Wrong, How to Learn from Mistakes and Why You Should Prepare for the Worst (pp. 409–421). nformation Age Publishing.

Courtney, S. J. (2012). Ofsted’s revised school inspection framework: Experiences and implications. In BERA (Ed.), British Educational Research Association. http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/216133.pdf

Courtney, S. J., & Gunter, H. M. (2015). Get off my bus! School leaders, vision work and the elimination of teachers. International Journal of Leadership in Education: Theory and Practice, 18(4), 395–417. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603124.2014.992476

Courtney, S. J., Gunter, H. M., Niesche, R., & Trujillo, T. (2021). Introduction: Critical scholarship and educational leadership. In S. J. Courtney, H. M. Gunter, R. Niesche, & T. Trujillo (Eds.), Understanding Educational Leadership: Critical Perspectives and Approaches (pp. 1–11). Bloomsbury.

Courtney, S. J., & Mann, B. (2020). Thinking with ‘lexical’ features to reconceptualize the ‘grammar’ of schooling: Shifting the focus from school to society. Journal of Educational Change, 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10833-020-09400-4

Courtney, S. J., & McGinity, R. (2020). System leadership as depoliticisation: Reconceptualising educational leadership in a new multi-academy trust. Educational Management, Administration and Leadership. https://doi.org/10.1177/1741143220962101

Courtney, S. J., McGinity, R., & Gunter, H. M. (2018). Educational leadership: Theorising professional practice in neoliberal times (S. J. Courtney, R. McGinity, & H. M. Gunter (Eds.)). Routledge.

English, F. W. (2016). Lead the Change Series: Q&A with Fenwick W. English. In Lead the Change (Issue 61, pp. 1–4). AERA Educational Change Special Interest Group. https://www.aera.net/Portals/38/docs/SIGs/SIG155/61 _Fenwick English .pdf?ver=2016-09-10-130624-330

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Fuller, K. (2013). Gender, Identity and Educational Leadership. A&C Black. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=SnEsAQAAQBAJ&pgis=1

Gorski, P. C., & Zenkov, K. (Eds.). (2014). The Big Lies of School Reform. Routledge.

Gunter, H. M., & Courtney, S. J. (2020). A new public educative leadership? Management in Education, 1–5. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1177/0892020620942506

Jabbar, H. (2015). ‘Drenched in the past:’ The evolution of market-oriented reforms in New Orleans. Journal of Education Policy, June, 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2015.1047409

Jones, S., Courtney, S. J., & Gunter, H. M. (2021). Leading in a genetics-informed education market. In S. J. Courtney, H. M. Gunter, R. Niesche, & T. Trujillo (Eds.), Understanding Educational Leadership: Critical Perspectives and Approaches (pp. 355–369). Bloomsbury.

Ravitch, D. (2014). Hoaxes in educational policy. The Teacher Educator, 49(3), 153–165. https://doi.org/10.1080/08878730.2014.916959

Saltman, K. J., & Means, A. J. (2021). Corporatization and educational leadership. In S. J. Courtney, H. M. Gunter, R. Niesche, & T. Trujillo (Eds.), Understanding Educational Leadership: Critical Perspectives and Approaches (pp. 339–354). Bloomsbury.

Smyth, J. (Ed.). (1989). Critical Perspectives on Educational Leadership. The Falmer Press.

Tyack, D., & Tobin, W. (1994). The “grammar” of schooling: Why has it been so hard to change? American Educational Research Journal, 31(3), 453–479. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312031003453

Watson, T. N. (2020). Lead the Change Series: Q&A with Terri N. Watson. In Lead the Change (Issue 105, pp. 1–7). AERA Educational Change Special Interest Group. https://www.aera.net/Portals/38/docs/SIGs/SIG155/105_%20Lead%20the%20Change_TW_April%202020.pdf?ver=2020-04-25-112409-497

ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.  Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung KimGraduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.

2 responses to “Power and Its Effects on Educational Change: The Lead the Change Interview with Steven Courtney

  1. Pingback: Power and Its Effects on Educational Change: The Lead the Change Interview with Steven Courtney Study Aims

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