Primary school teachers' experience of policy reform in the second decade of 21st century England

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The aim of the research is to understand primary school teachers’ responses to the
changing English educational policy context, specifically subsequent to the
government’s 2010 White Paper reforms.
My research reflects two key questions:
1. How is education policy reform perceived and experienced by primary teachers
in England?
2. What are significant influences on, and threats to, primary teachers’ motivations
and morale?
Internationally, many of the discourses of primary teaching reinforce an interpretation of
a profession constituted by dedicated, ‘natural’ teachers working hard to maintain the
interests and welfare of the young child. In recent years, the profile, status and political
position of primary teachers in England has continued to evolve as the profession has
undergone something of a transformation. Overarching reform continues to re-define
the aims and purpose of primary education which are framed in increasingly
essentialist terms.
This qualitative study focuses on 22 primary teachers across three professional life
phases, encompassing teaching experience of two to fourteen years. The teachers
were employed in the South-East of England across 20 schools and four local
education authorities. Data were collected between 2014 and 2015, and teachers were
interviewed on two occasions. Central to my research is the aspiration to explain how
particular aspects of neo-liberal educational reform reposition primary teachers and the
work that they do.
Thematic analysis facilitated identification of four categories of findings reflecting
teachers’ experiences of accountability, performativity and managerialism, alongside
the commitment to ‘make a difference’. The four findings chapters serve to illuminate
the duality of what it means to teach as well as be a teacher these days. The findings
offer insights into teachers’ encounters with neo-liberal policy reform, the emotional toll
and the impact on morale. I suggest that the complex interaction between the
discourses of altruism and accountability elicits a profound professional and personal
burden on primary teachers.
The emergence of the primary practitioner as ‘tactician’ reveals a particular brand of
survivalism necessary for a context that acts to pedagogically and philosophically
constrain the purpose of primary education, and thus, primary teachers. My exploration
of ‘gaming’ necessitates reflection on the moral(e) predicament for primary teachers,
and the threats to teachers’ professional motives, aspirations and occupational stamina
are considered. I suggest that teachers’ experiences of policy reform in primary
education are better understood as situated in, and exacerbated by, an increased
culture of ‘miserabilism’ in education that transcends notions of ‘teacher stress’, low
morale and reputational decline.
Date of AwardJun 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorAndrew Hobson (Supervisor) & Carol Robinson (Supervisor)

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