Behind the Curtain
: An Exploration of Professionalism and Capital in Further Education

  • Paul Tully

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Professionalism is an important issue for FE policymakers in post-16 education because of its
established links to competence, morale and staff continuity. This study examined concepts of
professionalism in the English further education sector, how it is strengthened or weakened,
and the implications this has for workforce planning and management.

The study adopted a Bourdieusian framework which explains social phenomena such as
professionalism in terms of three capitals (social, economic, cultural). These capitals operate
dynamically in a social structure (field) and generate potentialities for social thought and action
(habitus). The study utilised a survey comprising quantitative and qualitative forms of enquiry
to investigate both structural and attitudinal aspects of professionalism. The survey contained
six sections: demographics, employment, subject knowledge, work relationships, motivation
and professionalism. Perceptions of professionalism were measured using a revised 15-item
version of the Hall professionalism scale (1968) based on adaptations by Wimmer (2007) and
Scailes (2003). Measures of cultural, social and economic capital were also constructed. An
online survey was sent out to teachers, managers and curriculum support staff working across
the sector with 461 useable responses collected.

The achieved sample reflected the sector profile in terms of gender, ethnicity and background,
though the average age was slightly higher in the achieved sample. The quantitative data was
analysed using descriptive and inferential methods including exploratory factor analysis,
regression, ANOVA and correspondence analysis. Professionalism was affected by key
respondent demographics and occupational position. Professionalism was also found to be
statistically significantly related to the distribution of capital (cultural, social and economic).
A typology highlighted the way in which the three capitals were distributed in the sample. The
data yielded three overarching themes for FE professionalism: expertise, service and organisational compliance. Respondents’ location in the FE hierarchy determined which of these themes were perceived as dominant. Of the three themes, expertise was the most important variable differentiating scores on professionalism and work status, but to function as capital it must be recognised by others.

This study has demonstrated that professionalism is a more nuanced concept than previous studies have suggested. In FE, notions of professionalism vary across the FE field according to job role, committee membership, trade union membership, teaching load and incidences of non-specialist teaching. The findings establish a relationship between people’s position in the field and the way capital is distributed. There is also further evidence, in line with recent analyses by Lobb (2017) and Donovan (2019), that professionalism in FE is being challenged by persistent managerial pressures.
Date of AwardNov 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorYvonne Hillier (Supervisor), Nadia Edmond (Supervisor) & Mark Price (Supervisor)

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