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Performative education policy and the challenges for teachers with specific learning differences

Annemarie O’Dwyer

Presently there are gaps in the body of research on teachers with specific learning differences (SpLDs). Where research on the matter does exist, it tends to focus on resilience strategies in teaching and learning preparation, and early-career experiences (Macleod and Cebula 2009; O’Dwyer and Thorpe 2013; Riddick 2003; Riddick and English 2006). In an attempt to address this dearth of evidence, my research concerns itself with what such teachers may face within a performance-management-led culture in which teachers have to perform according to a pre-determined regime of standards and measures (Ball 2012). Furthermore, a key focus of my research is to explore the policy process (in particular the policy consultation process) to present the policy techniques used in the consultation process, and to identify who is active in the generation and enactment of education policy. I pay some consideration to the further education (FE) workforce as a collective, and how it navigates through education policy driven by performative discourse. However, I give particular attention to how performative policy may present specific challenges for teachers with SpLDs.


Qualitative semi-structured interviews were selected. The use of open-ended questions provided the interviewees with the opportunity to rationalise and explain the perceived benefits, purposes and expectations of performative policy from their perspective.

The interview sample population was selected based on the understanding that policy enactment is not a privilege reserved for politicians: rather, it assumes that all who are engaged in the policy cycle process, from teachers to politicians, are policy actors (Bowe et al 1992).

Early findings

Although my data analysis is at an embryonic stage, there is some evidence in the data to support the notion that all who engage with policy are policy actors (Braun et al 2010; Bowe et al 1992). However, there is also evidence suggesting that any consultative process experienced had been restricted by being led by a particular agenda, direction and set of questions, so limiting the consultation process from the beginning. This finding goes some way to supporting Dale’s (1989) assertion that policy ‘gets done’ to people. Dale argues that policymakers fail wider stakeholder groups by limiting their interpretation to the content presented at the implementation stage. The return to linear A-levels in England is an example of a policy technique restricting interpretation of education policy at the implementation stage: wider education stakeholders were not formally consulted beforehand on the suitability of replacing the modular A-level with the linear.

‘The additional work involved in the linear A-level and subsequent curriculum reform is likely to have imposed an even greater burden on teachers with specific learning differences than on other teachers.’

Furthermore, in the substantive matter of whether policy presents any particular challenges for teachers with SpLDs, there are some early indications that it may. One of the participants in my research described how the linear A-level and subsequent curriculum reform brought with it an untenable level of additional work. Teachers were expected to revise and create new teaching material while at the same time carrying out their usual duties. The burden was great for all teachers; however, in the absence of reasonable adjustments, the additional work is likely to have been greater for teachers with SpLDs.

To conclude, my research intends to add an extra dimension to the existing corpus of research by exploring the policy process from the perspective of those who work in the FE sector, with particular tensions highlighted in considering the implications for teachers with SpLDs.


Ball S (2012) Foucault, Power, and Education, New York: Routledge

Bowe R, Ball S and Gold A (1992) Reforming Education and Changing Schools: Case Studies in Policy Sociology, London: Routledge

Braun A, Maguire M and Ball S (2010) ‘Policy Enactments in the UK Secondary School: Examining Policy, Practice and School Positioning’, Journal of Education Policy 25(4): 547–560

Dale R (1989) The State and Education Policy, Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Macleod G and Cebula K (2009) ‘Experiences of disabled students in initial teacher education’, Cambridge Journal of Education 39(4): 457–472

O’Dwyer A and Thorpe A (2013) ‘Managers’ understandings of supporting teachers with specific learning disabilities: Macro and micro understandings in the English Further Education Sector’, Cambridge Journal of Education 28(2): 51–56

Riddick B (2003) ‘Experiences of teachers and trainee teachers who are dyslexic’, International Journal of Inclusive Education 7: 389–40

Riddick B and English E (2006) ‘Meeting the standards? Dyslexic students and the selection process for initial teacher training’, European Journal of Teacher Education 29(2): 203–222