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Contesting the ideal learner: an ethnography of teachers work in a Community School

Burrett, Robin (2017) Contesting the ideal learner: an ethnography of teachers work in a Community School. MPhil thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.qwol5twcsypy


This thesis explores the construction of ideal learners through ethnographic examination of teachers’ and school managers’ work in Heath High, a mixed community school in outer east London. It examines classroom room-based formative assessment, school-wide internal assessment and managerial practices of audit and academic stratification to re-visit critical concerns in critical education literature about the social effects of summative assessment and related managerial practice within marketised governance. This work goes beyond and an understanding of the ideal learner as a truth effect of neoliberal discourse in education. Rather, it explores the influence at the micro-level of multiple dominant discourses of students’ subjectivity in learning and the teachers’ professional and political subjectivities in the construction of ideal learners. It draws upon the trajectory of Assessment for Learning literature; its appropriation and transformation by government and its agencies; its association with Ofsted’s notions of independent learning and its role in institutional controversy about Ofsted’s preferred learning styles following the election of the Coalition government in May 2010. Based on analysis of eight months’ worth of fieldwork conducted over the 2011/12 academic year, this project reflects on a variance of practice across different departments at Heath High and the role of the pastoral Heads and the Head Teacher in matching the inclusive, community ethos of the school to the demands of the local education market. This research is the basis for two substantive findings. First, it reveals how counter-hegemonic ideas about educations role and worth and subject specific passions directly influenced the type of learner most valued in some departments. This agency, though, was partial and contingent, dependent on departments’ relative exposure to the school’s market position. The concept of educational triage is extended to analysis how departments constitute themselves, and are constituted by, their relative exposure to the market position of the school. A spectrum of practice is revealed: At one end, socially violent subjectivating practices, causing visible anxiety among students. At the other, direct and sustained challenge to Ofsted understands of assessment and students’ expressions of hegemonic individualism. The second contribution is analysis of the complementarities and conflicts between the social liberal educational ideas and an insurgent traditional a paradigm within marketised governance. These were felt at the micro-level and where a challenge to the Heath High’s version of educational inclusion. Managerial practice at Heath High suggested the strong influence of social liberal ideas about educational inclusion. Their manifestation in school policy was threatened by a drip of policy changes in my year at the school, resulting in recalibrations of systems of audit and measurement, effecting the construction of students’ educational subjectivity at the micro level. This suggests understandings of students’ learning subjectivities needs to be attuned to the influence of multiple discourses within marketised governance, their historical formation and questions of continuity and change at the level of the school.

Item Type: Thesis (MPhil)
Additional Information: © 2017 Robin Burrett
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
Sets: Departments > Sociology
Supervisor: Ali, Suki

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