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As part of a doctorate of education qualification at University College London, I conducted a small-scale research project for an Institute Focused Study. The project was designed to draw attention to how school leaders perceive a significant impact when performative policy shifts. With performativity continuing to rise in the English education sector, the research asked whether headteacher agency is eroding and, if so, what heads are doing about it.

‘but they will get to a point where you give up … I do love my job but it’s just coming where I can’t afford to do it, it’s becoming unachievable’

Primary headteacher, Isabel, May 2023

‘Isabel’, a participant in the study, spoke of her role as a primary headteacher becoming ‘unachievable’ and getting to a point of ‘giving up’. With recruitment and retention of headteachers becoming more and more of a challenge (NFER, 2017; DfE, 2019; Towers, 2022; NEU, 2022), it is vital that we understand how significant changes to performative policies impact on perceptions of agency.

Increased performativity

Performativity, a disciplinary technology used to control our school staff through efficiency measures (Perryman, 2022), has been on the rise for decades in the English education sector. This can be seen through increased use of audits, target setting and inspections (Ball, 2000). My research focused on performativity through inspection. It looked at the specific performativity policy of the Ofsted inspection framework (DfE, 2019) and the impact on headteachers when the policy shifted significantly to focus on ‘knowledge and curriculum’ (Bousted, 2022). ‘Isabel’, along with eight other primary headteachers, talked through their professional life histories (Amott, 2018), identifying changes that took place when the framework was implemented. These interviews were manually transcribed with reflective thematic analysis used to generate themes seen through the lens of Foucault’s work on the panoptic (Perryman, 2006).

‘Performativity, a disciplinary technology used to control our school staff through efficiency measures (Perryman, 2022), has been on the rise for decades in the English education sector.’

Decreased agency

All nine primary headteachers were clear in how they perceived a reduction in their agency: ‘choice over one’s core work’ (Durrant, 2019). This reduction was seen strongly in barriers of increased workload, increased pressure and increased uncertainty. These barriers have all been identified before by headteachers, but my research showed how perceptions were more intense and directly related to this particular change of policy. The responses focused on how this new ‘curriculum’ element meant documents were needed that showed sequence and progression of knowledge; each never before seen as a priority. They spoke of subject leaders needing to be upskilled to understand ‘deep dive’ methodology. They fretted over the shifting of goalposts and of not knowing when the next framework might be implemented or how it might look, leaving them unsure and on edge. Through these barriers, they were describing the growing tensions between autonomy and accountability (Wilkins, 2011). Their ‘eroded’ and ‘undercut’ agency (Ball, 1993) led to behaviours that could be classified in four distinct ways: resisting, reimagining, crumbling and leaving.


Resisting was seen in headteachers who did what they felt was right for their schools, yet ‘showed’ inspectors what they wanted to see. Reimagining allowed headteachers to absorb the government discourse and ‘shift’ their values and views to take part in a form of ‘double-think’ (Wilkins, 2011). Crumbling meant headteachers took time to ‘come to terms’ with changes and support their mental health. Leaving meant just that. Two headteachers (out of the nine interviewed) have now left the profession.

Shadowy presence

Foucault’s ideas of power, through Bentham’s prison design, link to Ofsted inspectors’ use of surveillance. Bentham’s idea was that prisoners conform to rules: they govern themselves as they never know when they are being observed from an unlit central tower. Findings in this project showed how these school leaders felt the shadowy presence of an inspector, akin to how prisoners feel the presence of their prison guard, resulting in a need to conform as if they were always being watched. This power that inspections have to ensure conformity is compounded through high-stakes gradings. Leaders spoke of being ‘in fear’ of the inspection. In March 2023 there was an announcement of the tragic death of a headteacher that was linked to a school inspection. There has since been a review commissioned by the National Education Union (Perryman et al., 2023) and currently the ‘Ofsted Big Listen’ is underway (Ofsted, 2024). I believe there is more change coming. For the sake of our leaders, I hope this is a process that is done ‘with’ them and not ‘to’ them.


Ball, S. J. (1993). What is policy? Texts, trajectories and toolboxes. Australian Journal of Education Studies, 13(2), 10–17.

Ball, S. J. (2000). Performativities and fabrications in the education economy: Towards the performative society? Australian Educational Researcher, 27(2), 1–23.

Perryman, J. (2022). Teacher retention in an age of performative accountability: Target culture and the discourse of disappointment. Routledge.