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Why the government must learn to trust teachers

Photo of a stressed student with a book on her face

This article was written by Jacqueline Baxter for Discover Society, originally published on 24 August 2020. Jacqueline is Associate Professor of Public Policy and Management in The Open University Business School and Chair on the MBA programme.  Her research interests lie in the area of public service accountability governance and trust, with a particular emphasis on education. She is Editor in Chief of the Sage Journal, Management in Education and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. You can follow her on twitter at @drjacquebaxter.

2020 has been an exceptionally difficult year for all sectors of the public services in England, and the education sector has not escaped unscathed. The recent furore over exam results has caused immense angst and uncertainty, for students, parents and teachers alike. An incorrect algorithm was used to calculate results, rather than teacher predictions, resulting in thousands of A level students being downgraded, Whilst the problem has its roots in COVID-19, it has also been a ‘the perfect storm’, caused by a complete lack of trust by government in teachers and schools. This is now a system-wide lack of trust that has been building for the last 30 years.

Governing by numbers

COVID-19 has presented huge challenges for learners and teachers across every part of education, not least in how to estimate learner grades following a period of national lockdown. In the UK the method of deciding the results are broadly similar across all four nations and for qualifications including A-levels, GCSE’s, Scottish Nationals and Highers. Teachers were asked to predict grades; these predictions were sent to exam boards and exam boards put together the information, adjusting it with an algorithm that took into account, previous cohort results.

Although the system was designed to be fair, the algorithm application resulted in many students being downgraded, from original teacher predictions, many failing to get into their chosen university. The resultant furore has had an enormous impact on learners, and their families, and on teachers themselves, who have seen, once again, that the UK government has failed to trust their judgement.

Sadly, government trust in teachers has been declining since the 1980s, as part of a wider trend in mistrust of public sector professionals more broadly. This was partly instigated by a wave of New Public Management (NPM) reforms of the 1980’s, involving the belief that public service professionals were self-serving, rather than serving the public -a belief that has become known as ‘producer dominance.’  NPM is premised on the idea that market forces can be used to hold the public sector accountable, and that competition between providers, along with a far greater reliance on inspection and public satisfaction, is key to well-functioning public services.  In education, particularly in England, this created a huge reliance on data, creating one of the worlds’ most extensive data banks.

League tables, and responses to international comparators, such as PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) have compounded this, prompting governments to search for that elusive, somewhat ephemeral quality known vaguely as ‘excellence in education’- a term no clearer now than it was 30 years ago (Ozga, Baxter, Clarke, Grek, & Lawn, 2013). This combination of methods was designed to ‘open up’ the so called secret garden of education (Lawton, 1978), offering more information and data to parents in order to facilitate their choice of provider in a competitive marketplace, in which they have effectively become consumers (Clarke, 2007).

A high stakes inspection system based largely on data, combined with league tables and an excoriating right-wing press, has created a public discourse of mistrust in teachers in England. Since the 1980s successive governments have exacerbated this, encouraging a blame culture in which teachers and schools are constantly blamed for society’s ills. So what does this mean for education systems?

Distrust in Education: A spiral of degradation of human capital

Within society, ‘generalized trust’ is seen as the readiness of citizens to cooperate with each other and to be ready and willing to engage with one another in the various circumstances they find themselves.  In societies and education systems with high generalized trust, (such as Finland), people are more inclined to give others the benefit of the doubt, they have a more optimistic outlook for future interactions with people in general, and are more engaged in public policy (Cerna, 2014). The state has a powerful role  to play in establishing generalised trust and in turn trust in the state largely dictates its capacity to generate interpersonal trust ,and increases social and economic capital in a society, which, in turn affects the state’s capacity to govern  So creating a cycle of trust.

Distrust, in contrast manifests in negative expectations of people and their actions: Distrust is not the absence of trust, but an attitude in itself; an expectation that people cannot be relied upon and that their intentions are to be viewed with suspicion (Lewicki, McAllister, & Bies, 1998) . This climate, if allowed to fester will eventually lead to a passivity and alienation in a society or in this case, an education system

Teachers and Trust

Teachers are professionals and as such have a sense of professional accountability, in common with other professions, such as doctors and nurses. This is an understanding of accountability that is not based targets and data, but rather, on a professional requirement to uphold the highest standards in serving their pupils. This professionalism is accompanied by a body of professional knowledge that can’t easily be codified (Ozga, 1995). This is in direct contrast to the type of performative accountability that relies on data and is target driven (Ozga et al., 2013). The latter is a type of accountability that very often negates the human element in providing a ‘good education’. It is also a type of accountability that very often also negates context, socio economic issues and, which frequently fails to consider the consequences of profound deprivation on students.

Distrust of teachers is to negate their professionalism, to undermine their capacity to make a difference, by de valuing their work and creating a climate of suspicion between teachers and parents. Governments that introduce regulatory regimes that personify and magnify this distrust, such as high stakes testing and inspection regimes, create unintended consequences, such as teaching to the test, regimes driven by fear and suspicion and undermine human and social capital.

The recent exam furore has shown, beyond reasonable doubt, that the UK government distrusts teachers. In spite of having asked teachers to use their professional judgement, they decided instead to go with a computer algorithm. The U-turn that was made at the 11th hour, went some way to resolving the issues, but still left thousands of students without their first choice of university. And this is not the end of the matter. In 2021, students will be sitting exams, where some will have have had 6 months out of school. In these cases, teacher assessment will be absolutely critical in order to be able to consider each student and their circumstances. Even the best algorithm is flawed, and the one used in the recent examinations, chronically so. Students are humans and, in the end, humans should be the ones to decide their capability. Trust in teachers must be restored, to avoid further harm to an education system that is already suffering from years of government distrust.

Cerna, L. (2014). Trust: What it is and Why it Matters for Governance and Education. OECD Education Working Papers(108), 0_1.
Clarke, J. (2007). Citizen-consumers and public service reform: At the limits of neo-liberalism? Policy Futures in Education, 5(2), 239-248.
Lawton, D. (1978). The End of the Secret Garden. A study in the Politics of the curriculum. An inaugural Lecturer by Professsor Denis Lawton. . London: Institute of Education.
Lewicki, R. J., McAllister, D. J., & Bies, R. J. (1998). Trust and distrust: New relationships and realities. Academy of Management Review, 23(3), 438-458.
Ozga, J. (1995). Deskilling a profession: professionalism, deprofessionalisation and the new managerialism. Managing teachers as professionals in schools, 21-37.
Ozga, J., Baxter, J., Clarke, J., Grek, S., & Lawn, M. (2013). The Politics of Educational Change: Governance and School Inspection in England and Scotland Swiss Journal of Sociology, 39(2), 37-55.