Bargaining for change: School Direct and ITE reform in England

A new paper from the PETE project, about to be published in the British Educational Research Journal and co-authored with David Spendlove from Manchester, reports on our study of the enactment of the School Direct teacher education reform in England between 2010 and 2014. In the paper, we focus on our interviews with university leaders in two large regions of England, analysing their retrospective accounts of enacting the policy during a particularly turbulent time in education in England – including in higher education – under Michael Gove as Education Secretary. School Direct, as a teacher education reform, coincided with some of the biggest changes to university financial models ever made in the UK – the withdrawal of direct state funding for courses in the arts and social sciences by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government and the tripling of the tuition fee originally introduced by New Labour.

Entitled ‘Mediating School Direct’, the paper examines the mediations of the policy from a socio-cognitive and activity-theoretical perspective; to that extent we are aligned with the James Spillane tradition of policy enactment research. We identify two policy enactment activities (in the activity-theoretical sense) that involved bargaining within and re-brokering relationships between universities and schools. However, we also identify three emotional frames for perceiving School Direct within the policy environment, working with the Vygotskian concept of perezhivanie; here we draw particularly on the work of Marilyn Fleer and colleagues. The most striking thing about our data was the heightened emotion – at the level of perceived existential threat – recollected by the university leaders.

Consequently, we argue that the mediations of School Direct reported by the university leaders in our sample can be understood as limited appropriations of the policy within a highly charged emotional context where institutional risks were felt to be ever-present. In the paper, we also identify the role played by Dominic Cummings, then Michael Gove’s special advisor (now de facto chief of staff to the UK Prime Minister), in the rapid growth of School Direct and its purposively disruptive intent. However, rather than seeing School Direct as the ‘pure’ marketisation of teacher education provision, we suggest instead the logic of the market was simply the most obvious tool with which to shift control and resources away from the universities. Even the concept of privatisation does not fully capture either the intent or the dynamics of change involved in School Direct.

The paper concludes that, in their accounts, these university leaders did not believe that School Direct achieved a transformation of ITE on the basis of a reconceptualization of existing practices. And despite seeking to shift control and resources away from the universities, School Direct was instead re-appropriated into the status quo and ultimately served to entrench the universities’ important structural position in initial teacher education in England, albeit at reduced cost.

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