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Schools and Ideology: A Critique
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
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The pressure upon schools to improve and raise achievement is unlikely to recede over the next decade, which would suggest that the school effectiveness and school improvement research fields are likely to remain influential and popular with practitioners and policy makers alike. Until recently, these two traditions have gone their separate ways, mainly because of differences in methodological orientation and ideological position. The purpose of this paper is to provide the background and context for the analysis and critique of school effectiveness and improvement, within a cultural and political framework. More specifically, the present work sets out to portray the various processes that permeate the core of educational systems in most western societies, and show that schools are nothing but political arenas where the struggle for power and domination is the norm. (For a detailed analysis of school effectiveness and school improvement theories, please see Harris and Bennett, 2001).

The micro-politics of change, improvement and effectiveness in schools

Over the last twenty years or so, there has been a resurgence of interest in the description of what an effective school might look like and how schools might achieve or sustain that 'happy state' (Busher, 2001) through processes of school improvement. Despite the success of various studies in attempting to characterise effective schools (Rutter et al., 1977; Sammons et al., 1997), little has been done to pinpoint these characteristics in their dynamic socio-political environments or to indicate how those environments interact with the internal processes of schools. This has led to the view that what happens inside schools should only concern those who work inside schools, so that change in schools can be brought about solely by the efforts of the staff of those schools (Barker, 1998).
However, it is argued here that much of what happens in schools is caused by a multiplicity of factors located outside schools which are imported into schools 'through the semi-permeable membranes of school's institutional boundaries by students and staff of all qualities' (Busher, 1992; Barker and Busher, 1998). Staff and students in schools interact both with these external pressures and values and with each other in constructing what transpires in schools. Many of these interactions or negotiations are successful and result in agreed ways of working and satisfactory outcomes to all parties involved. Some of these interactions are less successful. The individual people involved are trying to achieve their agendas, such as to teach a lesson, learn a topic or resolve a conflict with students or parents. As Busher (2001: 75) notes, '[t]hese agendas are likely to be driven by overt or hidden values and beliefs about education and social order'. In pursuit of these agendas, people seek symbolic and material resources to help them. In other words, they seek sources of power to help them implement their views and values. This suggests that schools are political arenas in which competing views of educational, political and social order struggle to impose the preferred values of different social groups and individual people.

At any rate, these interactions are a nexus of shared norms and values that express how people make sense of the organisations in which they work and the other people with whom they work. The shaping and sustaining of an institution's culture through a variety of symbolic actions is of major concern to powerful people, such as headteachers. This is because it helps to make manifest the values and beliefs that those powerful people wish the institution to implement. Thus, the shaping and reshaping of a school's culture is a political act to assert power inequitably in favour of a particular set of values and beliefs held by the most powerful people. In the same vein, the curriculum aspect of a school's process is itself a political phenomenon. According to Carr (1993: 5), the curriculum is: 'not a description of subject matter but a set of proposals indicating…how subject matter is to be organised, the educational purposes it serves, the learning outcomes it is intended to achieve and the methods by which such outcomes are to be evaluated'. In short, the curriculum can be conceptualised as a process negotiated between teachers and students in the classroom, although formally, in the administrative structure of the school, power is held autocratically by teachers (and those vertically superior).

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