Education International
Education International

Teachers in England : resiliency in the face of reform

published 23 August 2016 updated 23 August 2016
written by:

The teaching profession in England is in crisis. The stories of English teachers feeling overworked, undervalued, creatively squashed by standardised assessments, constantly scrutinised as a result of accountability reforms and exhausted, are countless. This has led to many teachers saying ‘enough is enough’ and leaving the profession. In fact, a recent Guardian survey found that 98% of teachers said they were under increasing pressure, and 43% suggested they were planning to leave the profession in the next 5 years. When faced with the current teaching conditions, this decision is understandable. But what about the (majority) of teachers who are resilient to such reforms?

Resiliency is a buzzword now so often used in the context of crisis. Aid agencies promote the resilience of the poor for managing through tough times. Children in poverty are applauded for going to school to learn despite not having had enough to eat nor shoes on their feet. Teachers are venerated for continuing to teach in schools regardless of the fact that they may not have been paid for months. Yet too often this conception of resilience shifts responsibility onto individuals and away from duty bearers, leading to a lack of structural change. I suggest a new conception of the resilient teacher and argue that, in the context of England, framing teachers in such a way is desirable and necessary for three reasons: to recognize adequately the agency and leadership qualities of teachers; to keep hope for the future of English public education in the face of a privatisation agenda; and to support teachers who individually and collectively resist reforms that damage student learning.

England is currently undergoing structural educational reforms of an unprecedented scale. Schools previously under control of local authorities are becoming funded directly by central government and independently managed, often by business sponsors. Government discourse suggests that by devolving power over curriculum, human resources and budget to schools, educators will be able to throw off the shackles of local authority control and rightly take the lead in educational matters. In reality, however, decision-making power is generally given to executive principals who are charged with running schools as successful businesses following the New Public Management model. Teachers on the other hand are paradoxically subject to tightened accountability measures, frequent performance monitoring and performance related pay, heightened workload, and excessive student assessments that limit the time teachers have to actually teach. Yet, in the face of these reforms, teachers show resilience.

Resilience here refers to the myriad of ways that teachers assert their agency despite structural constraints. Considering teacher agency as an assemblage of obligations, authority and autonomy (Vongalis-Macro 2007), it is clear that in the current English context teachers’ obligations are heightened whilst trust in their specialised knowledge and autonomy is diminished. However teachers are still finding spaces for manoeuvre against a policy backdrop that threatens teachers’ working conditions and students’ learning.

Talking to teachers, I have heard narratives of resilience on multiple levels. On a classroom level, individuals find ways out of being pigeon-holed to teach-to-the-test. Micro-management is rejected by cursorily filling out tick-boxes whilst focusing instead on teaching effectively. Teachers enact principled micro-resistances by refusing to implement decisions made by edu-businesses. On a school level, teachers are building networks to ensure that they are given voice in the life of their schools. Teachers are supporting each other when workloads seem unbearable. Teachers are coming together with parents and their community to defend their schools against private interests. On a macro level, teachers are networking and exercising collective agency through national and international unions. Just last month there was a strike by the largest teaching union in England and Wales, the National Union of Teachers(NUT), to call for better working conditions in academies and fair funding. Nicky Morgan’s ‘u-turn’ on total forced academisation (which she had herself described as having ‘no reverse gear’) shows the power that teachers alongside students and parents have to create change.

Teachers should not be glorified as angels, however, teachers’ agency must be recognised, especially during these times of crisis. Their actions at micro, meso and macro levels show a new form of resilience – a resilience that is political, a resilience that is based in principled resistance, and a resilience that is in defence of quality teaching and learning. This cannot go unnoticed.


Vongalis?Macrow, A. (2007). I, Teacher: Re?territorialization of teachers’ multi?faceted agency in globalized education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 28(4), 425-439.