Saturday, 6 April 2019

The Benefits and Risks of Professionalism

A talk given at #BrewEdEY in Twickenham on 06/04/19.
With thanks to Simona McKenzie.




I’m here to talk to you today with humility. I am not an early years professional and I couldn’t be. I did have an early years setting operating out of my home for a number of years. Ofsted called it outstanding, but even that is short-selling the unbelievable hard work of educating and caring, and the dedication to children and families put in by the woman whose husband I am.

For my part, I love babies. Not so much 2yos. I do have a bit of a reputation as a baby whisperer, but I don’t think I’m going to make a career of it now. Maybe you’ll persuade me otherwise today…
What I do know a little about is professionalism in education. I’ve dedicated quite a long time to researching it, and that’s what I’d like to explore with you today. I won’t talk too long, I hope and I’m happy to give way at any time to questions or to be put in my place.

You’ll notice my title is even unsure of itself. I don’t want to label anyone against their will. I hope that by the end of this presentation I’ll have made a strong case for identifying as a teacher, but I’m just as open to being persuaded to identify as a carer.


So to professionalism… What do we mean by it?


It’s a long question to answer, and the more I look into it, the less I realise I know.

But we can make a useful distinction between professionalism as we would like it to be, and professionalism as we experience it.

Across the teaching profession globally, there is a growing sense that what we experience as professionalisation is not what it ought to be. That what we experience is actually a dehumanisation of our work, not just of ourselves, but also of our charges.

What Verity Campbell-Barr - Associate Professor at the Plymouth Institute of Education - talks about here in her paper on the silencing of the knowledge base in early years.

Is this something that echoes with you?



In the process of editing our book on the state of teacher professionalism in the UK, Lucy Rycroft-Smith and I worked hard to develop an expansive, democratic model for what it might look like and include.

Lucy is now Research and Communications Officer for Cambridge Mathematics.

We based our definition on the idea of agency. And we did that because it was the one thing we’d had taken from us as so-called professionals. It’s a long story, but 6 years in special measures is … a learning curve.

We found, among the 40 contributors to the book, that five main themes arose, five key ways to think of teachers’ professional agency. Cognitive, collective, ethical, political and global aspects of agency.

If you’re looking for the book, it’s got the orange colour. We gave teachers the agency to choose, and that’s what they went for. I wanted white, but I love my orange book now, and for many reasons it was the right choice.

Anyway. I’m going to go there now. I realise it’s the weekend. It’s the start of the holidays. It’s still early. It’s supposed to be a relaxed event…

But I’m going to go there anyway and I’m sorry.




What do we mean by cognitive agency?

The world of EY has had recent experience of what it isn’t. What it isn’t is this report.

Based on observations by an inspectorate ostensibly looking for an evidence-led approach, but put together by an inspectorate without a feeling for the sector as a whole, or evidently for the realities of professionals on the ground.

But take this response from Colin Richards, HMI. He wrote for Schools Week bemoaning – not the report – but the poor sales pitch. And fair enough, too. But look at the wording. Early Years professionals are merely the report’s audience. Passive receivers. Consumers.

Janet Downs is the author of The Truth About Our Schools. She is much closer to the nub.

The problem remains that professionalism isn’t about entirely free choices. It is about being in a dynamic relationship with professional knowledge, and children!

Cognitive agency then is about placing teachers as experts in managing the interaction between children and a curriculum. In doing that, we become producers of knowledge.

But for whom?



Collective agency is about networks.

We create, we produce knowledge, in and for networks. As Rosario Merida Serrano of the University of Cordoba shows in her 2017 paper, properly conceived and implemented, a network is is the opposite of a hierarchy.

In a network, everyone brings expertise, and everyone’s contribution is equally valued.

Imagine a report on literacy in the early years coming out of a network like that…

Now that would be a bold beginning!

The strength of networks is that they make diversity visible.

And that’s not just diversity of children and communities and needs… This quote is from a paper on early years mathematics. Diversity here relates to the different views teachers had of the same learning activities pertaining to number. And despite widely different views held, the network of teachers studied in this paper nonetheless began to develop a common professional language… across the whole of Sweden!

Now if that doesn’t put the lie to the social network potential of political edu-Twitter and its endless trad/prog dichotomy, I don’t know what will. If the individuals involved were invested in moving beyond their culture war, the evidence suggests they easily could.

Because we do depend on networks to solve problems, but networks depend on us for those solutions to be inclusive and sustainable..

But anyway, I’m conscious I’ve already started using the word teachers. I’ll try to be more careful.



Education depends on more than just knowledge and networks, though. Without a sense of values – a moral compass – education can be a destructive force.

Professionalism in education means being for the public good. It doesn’t matter if your service is paid for by the public or not., If you are not for the public good in education, then you aren’t educating children for sustainable and sustained wellbeing or prosperity.

The evidence shows that when parents are positioned as consumers of educational services for their children, they are led by short-term, exclusionary aims. Marianne Fenech at the University of Sydney has worked with early years settings and communities and shown that educators are well placed to intentionally cultivate activist collaborations.

There’s those networks again. Imbued with values. An ethical purpose. They become powerful advocates for inclusion.

And there’s a lot more to educational ethics than that, but consider how the word ‘care’ is portrayed, as opposed to the word ‘teach’, for example.

Where is the moral imperative of teaching in that? And where is the educational value of care?
And why? And how do we change that?

Should I become an educational carer? Or should Simona become a moral teacher?

You know what? I’m pretty sure she already is. But is that enough?



Tamara Cumming is Research Fellow at the School of Teacher Education of Charles Sturt University in Australia. The case study I’ve quoted from is a fantastic example of the interaction between environment and educator. Those interactions can affect identity, self-efficacy beliefs, productivity, wellbeing, capacity to care… And the environment can either enable or constrain those things.

That’s what makes professionalism in education political.

For the good of our students – and our own, because the two are entwined – we have to be active in resisting constraining environments and practices. We have to have a voice in our workplaces, in our communities, in our district and local councils and in Westminster.

And we can’t do it on our own.

There’s those networks again! And the best networks we’ve come up with as educators to give us that voice is unions. Did you know that teacher unions represent 130% of the teacher population.

You heard me right. People don’t stop paying in after they leave the classroom. That’s their worth to us.

And Denmark here provides a concrete example of what happens if that sense of educational professionalism isn’t developed and nurtured.  

Dristig begyndelse, anyone?



And that brings me to the last bit of my sales pitch. The bit where I try to scare you into agreeing with me.

Right now, the OECD is running two global studies on the quality of ECEC.

PISA tests for 2yos. Couldn’t happen, could it?

Tata Mbugua is professor of education at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. The paper I’m quoting from here is co-written with Barbara Trube, professor of education at Ohio University. Early Years education is becoming a global focus, and rightly so. In this initial phase, a lot of focus will be on developing countries in light of the Sustainable Development Goals. And that’s wonderful.

But without teacher-to-teacher communication across boundaries, delivering on those goals may be achieved in less than professional ways, and as we’ve seen, that means less than sustainable ways for the children and communities involved. Our government’s support for private education in the developing world already has known negative impact.

And that’s why professionalism in education is global. We’re not just here. We’re everywhere.

So let me finish with an appeal to you, which I hope will be refreshing in these times of wall-to-wall Brexit.




We need you more than you need us.

I, for one, have whole-heartedly embraced the message in this address by Andrew Gibbons.

I recognise the value and power of the early years, and I beg you to embrace your professionalism for the good of us all.

Whether you are the last bastion of resistance against the technocratic take-over of education, or the first staging post in the democratic adventure that lies beyond, or both, I offer you my unconditional professional regard, and thank you for listening to me.

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