‘It’s our job to take the limits away’: A case study approach to exploring culture of teacher expectations in an English secondary school

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Education Research from UWE reaches around the globe…

In this article, Dr Smith draws on her doctoral research, carried out in the Department of Education and Childhood at UWE, investigating the beliefs and practices of high expectation teachers.

Although Dr Smith’s EdD thesis was only submitted recently, it has already had global reach. One of her supervisors, Dr Richard Waller received an unexpected email from a researcher at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research who wrote to say how impressed he was with the quality of Dr Smith’s research.

Having only had my thesis revisions accepted in June, I am still somewhat in a haze and only just beginning to reflect on my doctoral journey. I began my professional doctorate in education with a keen interest in extending my understanding and in improving practice: I wanted to generate professional knowledge that would have real impact. Achieving that goal was without doubt a challenging, but incredibly rewarding and enriching experience.

My professional interest in my research project was born from a sense of social injustice. Having taught in the state sector for over twenty years, I have been increasingly troubled by the concept of labelling and notions of fixed abilities that are prevalent in our education system. From the earliest stages of formal education, teachers are required to make predictions about future development of the children based on present attainment, as well as determining students’ academic ability. Children from lower socio-economic groups and from particular minority ethnic groups are over-represented in lower sets and streams, and allocation to these groups does not always match the level of ‘ability’ as designated by test scores. As children progress through school, attainment gaps widen between children from lower socio-economic groups and their peers, suggesting that schooling exacerbates inequalities in educational attainment.

This sense of injustice led me to explore the beliefs of ‘high expectation teachers’, and the practices through which teachers aim to build an inclusive learning environment, in addition to the ways they develop strategies that do not rely on pre-determined ability labelling. This exploration led me to understand that what constitutes a ‘high expectation’ teacher needed to be investigated from particular locations: through government policy; through theoretical models; through professional regulation and performance management, and through notions of professional identity. I learnt that these positions sometimes overlap, but at times, also conflict with one another.

The case study design of my research is focussed on one phenomenon, that of the beliefs and practices of high expectation teachers, and one bounded case illustrates the phenomenon. The case is specific, and bounded by time and location. It is intended to emphasize uniqueness through the in-depth exploration of the participants’ experiences. Within this bounded system are the relationships between people and events, and within those are differing perspectives, as the positions on what makes a ‘high expectation’ teacher are contradictory, and not universally agreed.

I used thematic analysis to analyse data collected through questionnaires, interviews and focus groups, but reflected that despite the in-depth nature of this analysis, the phenomena of high teacher expectation remained only partially scrutinised in terms of social justice. Therefore, the social concerns raised throughout my study are also explored through the theories of Bourdieu with the aim of making sense of the wider issues of inequality inherent in this study, particularly in the sense that habitus is helped by, and helps shape, pedagogical action.

My findings are that there needs to be a recognition that in education, socially advantaged interests and voices dominate in terms of social mobility agendas. Social cohesion is therefore a challenge as inequality rises from an education system tailored to white, middle-class values, and until we value the diversity of heritage in all its forms, we cannot hope for greater equity for our students. Furthermore, teachers tend to be granted space in the public domain only through technical competency. Findings also suggest that teachers must be able to be emotionally committed to different aspects of their jobs, as their sense of moral responsibility is at the core of their professional identity.

The research also challenges the assumption that academic achievement is paramount and suggests that there are many other measures of success, in which students discover and are celebrated for a particular talent, or a passion for something new. The ability to make choices should be a fundamental right and should be accessible to all as a result of social justice.

This presents a challenge in today’s economic and political climate. At the time of writing the thesis, 4.1 million children in the UK are living in poverty, a rise of 500,000 in the last five years, and in-work poverty has been rising even faster than unemployment, driven almost entirely by increasing poverty among working parents. In addition to the economic context our young people are living in, educational policy increases social inequities rather than reducing the poverty attainment gap. For example, additional funding has been allocated for new grammar school places, despite evidence that dividing children into the most ‘able’ and the rest from an early age does not appear to lead to better results for either group, including for the most disadvantaged students.

The financial landscape for most schools paints a bleaker picture than that for grammar schools. A further significant challenge for the education sector is the recruitment of the required number of teachers of sufficient quality and motivation, at a time of continued public pay restraint and rising student numbers. Similarly, spending on early education, Sure Start and the childcare element of Working Tax Credit fell by 21% from 2009–10 and 2012–13, with falls of 11% for early education, 29% for targeted support for childcare and 32% for Sure Start. Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit payments were frozen in financial terms. In addition to cuts to income support, community-based support services and to the funding of voluntary groups and services, this financial context may have an impact on children as they enter the school system.

Furthermore, Britain’s high-status professions remain dominated by the privileged; those from traditionally working-class backgrounds earn on average £6,800 less than colleagues from professional and managerial backgrounds. Although students in my study feel that they can ‘get ahead’ on merit, it could be suggested that British society is profoundly unfair. Education is crucial to change, but it cannot be considered in isolation if we are going to tackle the challenge of disadvantage. Education must be freed from its current constraints so that educators have the opportunity to develop every child’s personality, talents and abilities to the full.

Within the constraints of this wider context, one recommendation that arose from the study with the aim of creating a culture of high expectations is that a form of ‘high-integrity’ setting could be implemented in schools. In practice, strategies such as: making setting as subject-specific as possible; grouping students by attainment rather than perceived effort; regularly testing and moving students between sets, and using a lottery system when assigning borderline students to sets may help mitigate the consequences of attainment grouping. Schools, however, may be deterred from implementing more equitable grouping practices by perceptions of middle-class parental and student preferences for attainment grouping. A further complication raised in this study is that most teachers who currently teach in attainment groupings believe that mixed attainment groupings would create further barriers to progress.

A final reflection for me is on the complex and problematic nature of the barriers to creating a culture of high expectation. I entered into this research project with a rather idealistic notion that exploring one definition of high-expectation beliefs and teaching practices could lead to the creation of a culture of high expectation. The reality is far messier. In addition to my exploration of the contradictory definitions of what makes a ‘high expectation’ teacher, research discourse related to teachers tends to be prescriptive, rather than serious study of, or collaboration with, those prescribed to or portrayed. This resonates with my own professional experience, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to explore this complex phenomenon through several lenses, even though at times these lenses seemed somewhat elusive!

Dr. Julie Smith has recently completed her doctoral research into the beliefs and practices of high expectation teachers, in the Department of Education and Childhood under the supervision of Dr. Richard Waller, Dr. Nicola Bowden-Clissold and Dr. Sarah Chicken. She is also Vice-Principal at a secondary school in Gloucestershire.

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