“I covered the kitchen table with books. They had to be bang up to date. If there was a week’s homework missing, or any work that was less than half a page, or if there was a single page without a green pen on it – mostly mine, but some of theirs to show Peer Assessment – I was dead.” (The Secret Teacher, p. 73)
The Secret Teacher highlights the overwhelming fear that is felt in the run up to a formal observation, a moment to be judged, assessed, and categorised. Performativity encompasses every persistent and constant judgement in education. Performativity was established to aid standardisation of teaching and ensure the raising standards of students in England and Wales. However, performativity is causing a culture of terror (Ball, 2003) and increasing the workload demands (Perryman and Calvert, 2020).
This essay will critically explore the concept of performativity, whilst considering its impact on teacher workload and the wider issues of retention. This article will evaluate the conception of performativity within its Neoliberal context, analyse the external and self-regulatory aspects of performativity, and how this increases teacher’s workload and their eventual burnout.
In the early 1980s, the government began to increase centralised control in education by overseeing schools finance, curriculum and examinations, teacher’s practice and training (Tomlinson, 2001). With this transition to a Neoliberal approach and the introduction of marketisation, educators began to lose the autonomy they once had in the classroom and were beginning to be viewed as a “technical workforce…rather than a profession to be respected.” (Tomlinson, 2001 p.41). The implementation of the Education Reform Act 1988 enabled education to become marketised and pushed performativity to the forefront. Initially, performativity was there to standardise education, but is now causing teachers to question their “perspectives, beliefs and practices concerning the nature of teaching and learning upon their entrance to the profession (Gray and Seiki, 2020).
This essay will be using Ball’s (2003) definition, which states performativity as a “technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change – based on rewards and sanctions.” This culture has been formed and moulded out the Neoliberal ideas of marketisation and forces schools to “fulfil performative criteria” in order to be considered successful (Fox, 2020). Consequently, schools have become data driven and are adopting a range of performative strategies to support the improvement of outcomes (Perryman and Calbert, 2020). Troman (2008) identifies performative strategies including but not limited to target setting, league tables, performance management and Ofsted. Although the implementation of National Curriculum, tests and inspections should be models for schools (Barker, 2008), it often leads teachers questioning their professional ideals. Fox (2020) further argues that schools must become performers “in order to be valued in their community” (p. 4). It is clear that performativity forces teachers to question their professional decisions and worth in society. Performativity has manifested into two aspects: external surveillance and self-regulation.
Panoptic performativity, as defined by Perryman (2006), describes a culture of constant inspection from schools and Ofsted. Furthermore, Perryman (2006) states that “institutional authority is invisible, but the objects of power, which in a school are the teachers and pupils, are visible and supervised.” (p. 154). This suggests that the judging criteria that are used to assess the outcomes of teachers can be considered arbitrary as they are based on the political agendas. As teacher outcomes are based on student examinations results, teachers often become obsessive and pressurised to collect and track student progress (Perryman and Calvert, 2020).
Due to constantly changing policies, teachers are being pulled in different directions to meet the expectations of various criteria and agencies. Ball (2003) highlights that this causes unnecessary “uncertainty and instability” (p. 220) and states that a “sense of being constantly judged in different ways, by different means according to different criteria, through different agents and agencies…[means that] it is not always very clear what is expected.” (p. 220). This can cause teachers to question their own professional judgements and, perhaps, opt for decisions that help to improve their own performance, improve data and appease Ofsted (Fox, 2020). As Ball (2003) states “[b]eliefs are no longer important – it is output that counts” (p. 223). With performativity having an influence over the culture of the school and inevitably has an influence over teachers’ perceptions of their own abilities and judgements.
Fox (2020) argues that the commodification of teachers reduces autonomy and that this results in the high levels of teacher turnover. According to the Department of Education “Of the teachers who qualified in 2013, 67.7% are still in service after 5 years” (Department of Education, 2018). It becomes clear that there is a positive correlation between performativity and teacher workload, thus we see the emergence of a new teacher (Ball, 2003). Perryman (2006) supports this idea, stating that as schools are creating a culture of panoptic performativity, teachers are becoming the norm of the culture that they wish to resist.
Due to the ever-changing demands and policies, there has been an increased pressure on teachers to perform to different expectations and receiving pressures from individuals in the school environment. With these pressures challenging teachers’ perceptions, there is often a sense of vulnerability that is felt amongst beginner teachers (Gray and Seiki, 2020). This vulnerability can often transpire into many teachers leaving the profession early in their careers (Perryman and Calvert, 2020).
Gray and Seiki (2020) argue that due to the performative culture of the intense “rigors of a testing and data-gathering regimen” (p. 9) teachers are losing their autonomy in the classroom and that, perhaps teachers should be trusted again and placed at the forefront of running schools. It was noted in their research that due to the “institutional pressures of standardized testing and its negative effects on their students, classrooms, and curricula” almost half of teacher considered leaving the profession (p. 8). This is corroborated in one of the main reasons why teachers leave the profession with 57% stating target driven data as third most popular cause (Perryman and Calvert, 2020, p. 14). It is significant to note that, whilst this research was conducted in the USA, the marketisation ideals and culture of performativity is still overwhelming teachers globally (Perryman and Calvert, 2020). The participant, in the study, stated they felt that “the assessment data might reflect on her skills as an educator.” (Gray and Seiki, 2020 p.6). This reinforces the negative influence of performativity, as teachers feel that they are judged solely on the data that their students demonstrate in examinations, an idea that is underpinned by the current marketization of education.
This was illustrated in the recent impact of Covid on GCSEs, where teachers awarded marks to students but were facing pressure from the government, parents and experts (The Guardian, 2020). With this rising pressure it felt as though teachers were not being trusted professionally, despite the constant surveillance and data checking throughout the academic year. Within my academy, there was an increased pressure on teacher’s to ensure that they had awarded the grades using the ranking system and in light of this have put several strategies in place this year to ensure that results are being awarded fairly, in case there is a similar situation in summer 2021. Additionally, there are concerns that within performance management meetings, staff will be negatively reviewed if the data is low but not take into consideration the wider impact of Covid on education.
Perryman and Calvert (2020) argue that the culture of performativity is creating a demanding workload for teachers and is one of the major factors in teacher’s leaving the profession. Furthermore, Perryman and Calvert (2020) argue that “…the performative accountability culture of education in the twenty-first century, efficiency is seen as ‘a good thing’ irrespective of the cost to people – intensification, loss of autonomy, monitoring and appraisal, limited participation in decision-making and lack of personal development are not considered.” (p. 6). With an increase of ‘intensification’ and ‘monitoring and appraisal’, teachers will feel that they are under constant external surveillance and must perform to avoid becoming scrutinised (Perryman, 2006). This could cause a sense of fight or flight amongst teachers and for those who must “escape the regime” (Perryman, 2006 p.155) mean leaving the teacher profession in its entirety.
When I was placed under intense monitoring and appraisal, I considered my professional judgements and questioned whether to leave the profession. During my training years, I was constantly being monitored and observed twice a week. Whilst this is an important aspect of supporting and developing trainee teachers’ practice, the intensity became overwhelming. It felt as though my every step was being observed throughout the school and I needed to justify every decision, movement and statement I made. I was ultimately left feeling unsupported and with nowhere to turn and seek encouraging advice. In my current middle leadership role, I realised that I am now becoming the observer not the observed. It is seen as my duty to report back to senior staff about other teachers’ punctuality, behaviour management and commitment, I question whether this is the right approach to take in an already intense work environment.
Perryman and Calvert (2020) also identify “that being in teaching stifles creativity, and it is this that leads to a person’s departure” (p.16). Perryman and Calvert (2020) are arguing that by increasing performative measures such as working towards exams, preparation for inspection and reviewing data, teachers reduce the autonomy and creativity that often was a significant reason for joining teaching; 35% of respondents cited this as a reason (Perryman and Calvert, 2020, p. 11). The notion of performativity restricting creativity in the classroom has also been identified by Ball. Ball (2013) argues that in recent decades we have seen a reduction of autonomy within the profession as teacher’s, instead of striving for creativity and passion, strive for attaining government standards. This causes two conflicts in teachers’ beliefs; firstly their questioning of autonomy and creativity in the classroom and secondly their expectations of the wider outcomes and purpose of education.
As Key Stage 3 lead for English, I can resonate with this conflict of performativity measures with creativity. As stipulated by the government, academies do not need to follow the National Curriculum (Department of Education, 2014) and have the creativity and autonomy to design a curriculum that will support students entering a world of work. However, with the new Ofsted guidelines, there is a clear suggestion that academies will need to follow the National Curriculum stating that “learners study the full curriculum.” (Department of Education, 2014). This poses an issue in my role as I want the team to feel that they have the freedoms and creativity to create lessons that meet the students desires, despite this we are having to follow the National Curriculum and help transition students into Key Stage 4. This was also observed by Gray and Seiki (2020), who explained that trainee teachers often follow the safest path than take risks.
Teachers are being placed in an uncompromising position. They are often viewed by society as a social worker, parent and confidant, but with increasing pressures to meet unexplained criteria from policies and leadership, teachers are focusing their students’ learning on the datafication of outcomes alone. Whilst performativity can be used effectively, when supportive, to improve standards (Carr and Kemmis, 1986, as cited by Cain and Harris, 2013), it is generally having a negative impact on teachers. Constant and continual judgement is forcing teachers to work harder and burnout, leading to their eventual resignation from the education sector. It is imperative that the government, leaders and teachers re-evaluate what is essential to education, do we prioritise data or humanity?