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Looking from the inside out: reflecting on teacher agency within a performative context

Newton, Rebecca (2018) Looking from the inside out: reflecting on teacher agency within a performative context. Doctoral thesis (EdD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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Since the introduction of 1988 Education Act, the education system has seen major changes which continued to focus on policy and create a prescriptive performative culture among teachers. It was at this point that control within the classroom was perceived as ebbing away from the class teacher and moving more towards government and the rigours of policy There has been a drive for transparency which has meant an increase in the amount of data schools and teachers must produce about their pupils and this data is used to judge both the worth of the teacher and the school. Pupil achievement forms part of performance management meetings and now determines pay scales for teachers in the state education system. Critics of the education system have noted a rise in teachers leaving the profession and allude to a sense of teachers having to conform to policy in order to be deemed ‘good’ at their job. In recent years, stress and the mental health of teachers has been a widely discussed topic in the media, and it has been reported that the pressures of performativity are widely to blame. This thesis explores the impact of policy on teacher agency through interviews with four teachers at different stages in their professional careers, and also through my own experiences and reflective writing, in the context of a performative culture. It focuses on their narratives and my own, through the lens of Peshkin and his work relating to subjectivity and ‘Situational Identity’. It questions how and where teachers experience professional agency and the affect policy has on the assertion of agency and the development of their pedagogy. The analysis suggests that although policy causes tensions and contradictions with teachers’ values and preferred pedagogy, values still lie at the heart of what teachers do and they are not lost amongst the plethora of policy and paperwork. There may be times when their practice is not carried out in the way they had intended, but times of great tension can also elicit a stronger assertion of agency; difficult decisions can be made that focus on what is right for their pupils, and complicit conformation is not the only option. Agency lies within the tensions and contradictions certain contexts create and it is in the management of these tensions that agency becomes apparent.

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