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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

Professionalisation and the Schools Discourse

Updated: Nov 12, 2022

The ideology of professionalisation first emerged in the nineteenth century, partly as the middle classes grew and began to seek a livelihood in areas (such as science) previously the preserve of gentlemen amateurs, partly as these middle classes presented greater demand (and the ability to pay) for professional services, and partly as the Industrial Revolution generated new areas of study (such as engineering) that presented opportunities and needs for defined groups of experts.

While “profession” is not a tightly defined term, characteristics of professions typically include:

  • An established body of specialist knowledge

  • A specific set of specialist qualifications are required

  • Specialist associations and journals

  • Debates around some areas, often conducted through journals and other publications – this typically leads to changes in what constitutes the established body of specialist knowledge at the heart of the profession

  • Relatively well paid

  • Respected

  • Established group norms of conduct or ethical codes

Professionalisation understood to be the process of moving an area of endeavour and/or discourse to a state where it meets the above criteria. Areas that have undergone professionalisation over human history include law, engineering, the sciences, medicine and, perhaps to a lesser extent, teaching and school leadership.

”Fields of practice”

Steve Rollet’s excellent blog here gives us some powerful starting points for how we might conceive of fields of practice in education. Rollet’s conceptualisation names “teaching” as the field but considers aspects beyond classroom practice such as leadership and curriculum development. The field I am concerned with in this blog is, I think, the same field that Rollet describe. I’m not sure what term most successfully encapsulates the field- “teaching“ seems perhaps too narrow to me, but on the other hand “school leadership“ seems to imply that the field is exclusive to people in positions of leadership, and that doesn’t seem accurate. Perhaps “schools” or “school practice” is better — I don’t know and I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this. In this blog I have used the terms “schools” and “school leadership” interchangeably.

To what extent does the field of school leadership currently manifest the features of a profession, and why should we care?

School leadership as an area of endeavour currently meets some but not all of the criteria suggested above for the status of a profession. While teachers and school leaders are arguably fairly well-paid and well-respected, we cannot claim to have an agreed central body of knowledge around which qualifications and debates can centre, and which can be said to inform our professional practice in a consistent and meaningful way, in the same way that professions such as law and medicine do, for example. There is knowledge, and it is growing, and being debated and refined, helped enormously by initiatives such as ResearchED --- but it is not comparable to that in the professions yet. In particular, as Michael Fordham says here, “ideas about leadership at a school and system level has not kept pace with ideas about curriculum, teaching, assessment and teacher development.” I am not sure either that there is an established set of group norms around conduct or an ethical code that takes us very far in terms of practical action.

Why should we care? It is not uncommon to hear people bemoaning the fact that teaching and school leadership are not seen on an equal footing with the other professions, with law and medicine for example, and some might argue that we should seek professionalisation in order to be accorded similar status. However, I would argue that this motivation is a conflation of object with image, of purpose with pomp. Professionalisation is really just the label – it is what sits beneath it, i.e. what you can do when you have an established body of knowledge, and a meaningful set of group norms, that should motivate us.

With an established (but not uncontestable) body of knowledge, we are better placed to make good bets in our actions as leaders, better placed to choose policies and approaches based on thinking that has been approved by others through application, analysis and criticism. It would mean that we don’t have to effectively start from scratch, work everything out through trial and error, as school leaders often feel they do, but instead could draw on accumulated shared understanding. Professionalisation in other fields has brought untold benefits to humanity through better approaches: the countless lives saved through better medicine, and the freedoms and security we enjoy in our society under our legal structures. Imagine what we could do in education!

This is not to say that it is possible to reach some perfect objective truth, an optimum model or set of infallible procedures in school leadership. But having something established can give a more secure starting point than mere guesswork. In addition, it provides a firm ground for moving knowledge on, for challenging orthodoxy, for developing thinking. This has been the case in areas as diverse as science, architecture and medicine: in a climate of professional discussion, the establishment can be a fertile ground for progress.

Some aspects of school leadership as a field have heretofore tended to resist the development of a body of knowledge, however. It is worth considering what the reasons for this might be. Firstly, there is significant overlap with the leadership discourse as a whole. Works from thinkers such as Jim Collins, Stephen Covey and the like, alongside research into leadership as the process of influence, have historically informed a significant portion of anything that could be said to be the school leadership discourse or body of knowledge. The boundaries of the domain are thus not as clear as they are for other professions. In addition, the object of interest in school leadership is complex, heterogeneous and external. In the sciences, we tend to study areas that are fairly uniform and subject to the same sorts of explanatory models and methods of investigation. These objects are typically amenable to analysis and rigorous description, even prediction. Law, on the other hand, is not a natural phenomenon, but a human construction, but it has been constructed intentionally and has a clear structure and system of organisation. We know where we ought to look in order to find out about law, because we wrote and enacted it all ourselves. As objects of study schools are, in a sense, the worst of all worlds. They are entities in their own right, existing in the world independent of us, and as such they have mysteries that we need to uncover. Unlike the sciences, however, they are not composed of just forces and atoms, or cells and organisms – they are composed of people, ideas, assessment, subject disciplines, relationships, cognition, and any other number of things-in-the-world, each with their own levels of existence, each with their own ways of operating, but with interactions between and across these levels as well. It is fiendishly, devilishly messy, and not amenable to straightforward analysis or experimentation in the same way that we find with plants and particles.

Other fields have similarly messy-externalist object of interest. NHS management is another, and, I should think, some parts of the civil service. It will be interesting to follow these areas over the coming years and to see if further steps towards professionalisation are made.

Regarding norms of conduct- of course in education we have the Nolan principles, just like everyone else working in positions of public office, and we have the Teachers and Headteachers Standards. But these do not give clear guidance for specific scenarios in the way that we find in the professions. Rather, they focus on more generalisable and abstract themes such as honesty, leadership and openness. It is hard to disagree with what are admirable universal traits of individuals and leaders, but there is scope for a different approach that goes beyond these ideas..There are entire degrees in medical ethics, and whole treatises on ethical conduct in law. Granted, education doesn’t have the same immediate high-stakes nature that medicine and law have, but nonetheless it seems to me that there are some key questions that we should explore, and that we should look to great ethical thinkers for guidance on. Under what circumstances is it ethical to trial something with a group? Should we label students by their economic status or not? What does inclusion mean in a just world? In the professions, this sort of question isn’t just answered by individual sense of “rightness” or populism – intelligent people undergo rigorous debate to explore the possible responses, and these are added to the body of established professional discourse. What might that look like in education?

While we might be desirous of reaching an established body of knowledge and set of norms, we are a long way away from that point at present. A constructive step in that direction, I suggest, is a concrete effort at a professionalisation of the discourse of school leadership.

What are the features of professionalised discourse?

In a professionalised discourse, I suggest, we might find typically the following features:

  1. Critical analysis – asking “is this really any good? How do we know?” of everything.

  2. Commitment to rigour – turning to expertise in fields that can inform our knowledge and thinking, such as psychology, economics and philosophy; and seeking to articulate, codify and develop specialist expertise where other fields cannot reach. As part of this, a commitment to argument from evidence, experience and research where these methods of approval are appropriate, and a recognition that not all areas of our concern are amenable to empiricism, and thus a commitment to other rigorous argument, such as philosophical debate, in these areas (e.g. ethics).

  3. Commitment to specialism – an awareness of the existence of unique features in the domain (teaching, school leadership and also sub-areas such as assessment, the subject disciplines, specific school contexts and so on) and the reality that this affects what is relevant and meaningful.

  4. Commitment to generalisable principles – notwithstanding point (3), the seeking of principles, approaches and insights that have value across the domain of schools.

  5. Respectful exchange and disagreement – A rejection of hegemony and assumed orthodoxy, and a welcoming attitude to respectful disagreement and reasoned argument as a key tool in developing the discourse towards professionalisation.

  6. A pro-active approach to promoting the discourse and inviting others to join.

Where are we now, and what might the next steps be?

We have been incredibly fortunate in recent years to have had an enormous number of excellent blogs and books put forward on the subjects of teaching and school leadership, challenging some legacy thinking and pushing us towards considering what knowledge sits beneath the surface of the work of schools. The discourse thrives in Twitter exchanges and conferences, as well as in schools themselves. In addition, the new NPQs and ECF provide important inroads into key knowledge at the heart of the profession. Joe Kirby’s blog “Teachers lead the scientific revolution in education” draws together much of this important work.

What we haven’t perhaps yet fully developed is an articulation of what might be a shared goal or the terms of a loose association of interest. Yet there is a growing sense of togetherness amongst this community, not necessarily in agreement on specifics but in a shared desire for the approach I have sought to outline above, and a recognised need to begin to add some structure to what has until now been perhaps disparate, spontaneous or emerging. It is important, if we do seek some kind of articulation, not to stymie or distort this entity, this group of thinkers, into something that it is not. There is no central orchestrating body, there is no HQ, and that is the way it should remain, in my view. However, this does not need to prevent a tentative articulation being made. This post is a contribution to that end; it is my hope that others will respond and refine the ideas here into something representative of a collective.

Historically, emerging professions have structured their growing discourse around journals. In the modern world, and fitting the very grassroots nature of this suggested collective, I wonder if we might begin to use a hashtag for now - perhaps #shakeupschoolthinking or similar, to link to the blogs and articles that are in the vein of the ideas described here. As time goes by I think it would be great if individuals and groups began to organise perhaps blog series, conferences, webinars and the like around this hashtag. If it goes nowhere, we have lost nothing; if it does what I hope it does then it could, over time, make a significant contribution to the ongoing professionalisation of the work of schools and thus to the lives of students, leaders, staff and society. Thank you for reading.

Thanks to the following people who have helped develop my thinking in this area:

Stuart Lock

Helene Galdin-O’Shea

Kev Bartle

Tom Rees

Neil Gilbride

Jennifer Barker

Matthew Evans

Claire Stoneman

Steve Rollet

Jonathan Mountstevens

Matt Hood

Sallie Stanton

Michael Fordham

Rebecca Lee

Carly Waterman

Jon Hutchinson

Nick Hart

Tom Boulter

Nimish Lad

Katy Patten

Joe Kirby

Kat Howard

Mary Myatt

Nick Rose

Tom Bennett

Harry Fletcher-Wood

Christine Counsell

Clare Sealy

Adam Robbins

Jude Hunton

Greg Ashman

Carl Hendrik

Kathryn Morgan

Rob Coe

Andrew Old

David Didau

Bernard Andrews

Viviane Robinson

Amanda Goodall

Becky Allen

Ben White

Ben Newmark

Adam Boxer

Amy Coombe

Josh Vallance

Ollie Knight


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