The new professionalism: collegial autonomy

Teacher professionalism has long been understood in the academic literature (Furlong et al., 2000) as being composed of a strong technical culture (knowledge base); service ethic (inner core of strong, shared beliefs in serving clients’ needs); professional commitment (strong individual and collective identity); and professional autonomy (control over classroom practice). Of these, the most contested is teachers’ right to ‘autonomy’: ‘rarely do teachers own their professional standards to the extent other professionals do, and rarely do they work with the level of autonomy and in the collaborative work culture that people in other knowledge-based professions take for granted’ (Schleicher, 2018: 96).

Reforms discussed earlier in this chapter have had the effect of reducing ‘individual autonomy’ in decision-making by teachers in their classrooms, and autonomy is now increasingly framed within whole-school cultures of‘collegial autonomy’, as principals have become expected to be directly responsible and accountable for establishing whole-school values, cultures of collegiality and standards of teachers and teaching. The OECD (2016) report on professionalism, drawing upon teachers’ own perspectives, extended these to include peer networks — opportunities for information exchange and support necessary to maintain high standards of teaching - which seems to confirm a trend towards more collaborative work as an essential part of teachers’ professionalism.

Mausethagen and Molstad (2015) examined autonomy in the context of devolved systems of school government in Norway, concluding that, as in England, teachers’ individual autonomy has been largely replaced by what Frostenson (2015) has characterised as ‘collegial autonomy’, since collective forms of work preferred by management (school principals) now demand it. Frostenson developed a three-level typology:

  • 1. General professional autonomy, referring to changes in the frames within which teachers work (governance, school systems and reforms by which government influence the determination of curriculum ‘legitimacy’, pedagogies and assessment measures).
  • 2. Collegial professional autonomy, in contexts in which decentralisation has increased school autonomy. In the case of England’s ‘school-led’ system, most schools now operate through the exercise of collegial forms of autonomy.
  • 3. Individual professional autonomy, where action and decision-making are the responsibility of the individual teacher.

Frostenson identified a key tension in the practice of individual autonomy as being ‘in the use of metrics, or other forms of evaluation as decisive criteria for quality in which the teacher becomes accountable, rather than responsible’, implying that the individual teacher has lost ‘the traditionally enjoyed mandate of trust’ (Frostenson, 2015: 25). In English schools, then, teachers’ exercise of individual autonomy is now, therefore, more closely bound with the exercise of collegial autonomy (Day, 2020b). In a sense, school-university partnerships may be seen as an important embodiment of the promotion of collegial autonomy by schools.

The principals and teachers (of all ages and experiences) in the exemplar TRANSFORM project (see Chapter 4) were clear about their understanding of, agency and commitment to what Evetts (2011) has called ‘occupational’ as distinct from ‘managerial’ professionalism. The latter is characterised by ‘increased standardisation of work procedures and practices and managerial controls’ (Evetts, 2011: 23), whereas the former is ‘a discourse constructed within professional occupational groups and incorporated collegial authority’ (Evetts, 2011: 23) and characterised by a belief by teachers in their ability and capacity to combine individual and collective, collegial decisions about students’ learning which lead to advances in students’ progress and achievement.

 
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