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Preface to the Online Edition

by Stephen Eyers and John Richmond

Becoming Our Own Experts was first published as a fat printed book with a red cover in 1982. It is the bringing-together of papers written between 1974 and 1979 by a group of teachers, self-styled the Talk Workshop Group, at Vauxhall Manor School, an 11-18 girls’ comprehensive school whose buildings were on two sites in Vauxhall and Kennington, south London. The papers constituted an example of teachers researching the interactions of language and learning in their own classrooms, a process sometimes known as ‘action research’.

The book was published in an edition of 4,000, with the help of a generous no-interest loan from the Schools Council (a long-dead organisation, superseded by more bureaucratic and more centrally controlled agencies known by sets of initials which have changed — and continue to change — with bewildering frequency). The edition sold out within two years. The publication caused considerable interest and enjoyed a little fame in the worlds of teacher education and educational research for some years, in that it showed that classroom practitioners could reflect productively on their teaching, and teach better as a result. If a group of people in one school could do this, why could not a group in any school?

The educational world in the UK, and notably in England, is unrecognisable from that which prevailed in the 1970s. Essentially, teacher autonomy has been overtaken by government control, a process which has brought some benefits and done much harm.

There is no doubt that, overall, standards of student achievement in schools have improved significantly in the last 40 years. Most of this improvement has come about independently of government action, as a result of the continuing efforts of teachers, and of those who advise and support them, to understand better how to teach effectively. However, we should also acknowledge that, though government initiatives in education, beginning with the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1989, have been a mixed blessing, there has been a considerable amount of blessing in the mix. While brilliant and inspirational teaching always existed in the system, there were also large areas of complacent and poor practice. The government argument, to put it in its most generous light, was that if it were possible to understand how good teachers worked, if it were possible to agree on a broad, balanced, relevant and interesting curriculum in all school subjects, the complacent and the poor could perhaps be brought up to the level of the good and the brilliant, and everyone’s loss of autonomy would be a price worth paying.

There were — and are — struggles between governments and educators as to what ‘good teachers’ or ‘a broad, balanced, relevant and interesting curriculum’ actually look like; the educators, we are glad to say, have prevailed more often in these struggles, in terms of what actually happens in classrooms, than governments of either colour since 1979 would care to admit. There is the official story and the unofficial story: the latter always closer to the truth.

However, there is equally no doubt that the undermining of teacher autonomy by government legislation on curriculum content, teaching methods and assessment has done harm. We have moved from the situation which prevailed when our group was active in the 1970s, in which teachers had a large measure of autonomy in deciding what to teach and how to teach it, to a situation today in which teachers in England — and particularly primary-school teachers — are regarded by the government merely as machine operators, obliged to follow precise instructions as to curriculum content, teaching methods and systems of assessment.

And the trouble is that much of the curriculum content, teaching methods and systems of assessment thus imposed are simply wrong. They are ignorant of, or deliberately contemptuous of, the hard-won wisdom about curriculum, methodology and assessment which the most thoughtful educators have accumulated over many decades. The balance which should be struck, between the autonomy of a proud profession and a recognition of the fact that teachers spend taxpayers’ money and should be answerable as such, has shifted too much in the latter direction, driven often by reactionary ideology which politicians and their advisers have imposed or attempted to impose, in ignorance of how learning happens most effectively. The result has been a loss of morale, an undervaluing of the use of the imagination in teaching, a draining-away of the essential pleasure, more days than not, that the calling should bring with it.

Despite the fact that the educational past is as much ‘another country’, where we ‘did things differently’ as any other kind of past, there remains an interest in ‘action research’ and in the concept of the ‘reflexive practitioner’. The arrival of the internet has given those members of the Talk Workshop Group who are still alive and still in touch with each other the opportunity to republish Becoming Our Own Experts electronically. Although much of the content of the book is of its time and place, the spirit of enquiry which it represents, the notion of the teacher as an autonomous self-critical professional, not simply a deliverer to learners of educational content pre-formulated elsewhere, is independent of time and place, we believe. Hence

We’d like to thank Mark and Nicola Leicester of Parley Media, who have designed and built this website. We are greatly in their debt for the elegance and flair of their design, for their attention to every detail in handling a long and sometimes complex text, and for their enthusiasm for the book’s subject matter and purpose.

March 2018