Storying an alternative discourse of public education

When we are constantly told that there is no alternative, it can be hard to imagine that an alternative might ever exist.

This point is illustrated quite starkly in an animated adaptation of Platos’ Allegory of the Cave . The short film was first shown to me by a Mexican critical pedagogue and fellow Masters student in an Educational Leadership and Management seminar at the University of Nottingham. It is effective for its simplicity as much as for its intrinsic message.

Imprisoned in a cave, the only understanding the clay protagonists have of the world beyond comes from the distorted shadows of passers-by on their prison wall. One day, a prisoner is released and is able to experience life outside the cave for the very first time. Excitedly, he returns to the cave to share his stories with the prisoners who remain. Unfortunately, for them, the free man appears as only a shadow on the wall and the world he describes will never exist.

Although a reflection on the human condition, this allegory served as an interesting starting point for discussions on pedagogical practice during the Masters seminar. We were inspired to consider: Where can teachers find hope of an alternative vision of education, if they only ever look at shadows? How can they free themselves from the chains which prevent them from experiencing renewed purpose?

Sometimes, the alternative can be found within the teaching profession itself. It can emerge in the stories that teachers share with each other. In their reasons for entering the profession. In the articulation of what the sociologist, Julia Evetts (2013), would refer to as professionalism as a normative value system. Such narrative strategies were employed quite clearly in interviews I conducted with teachers who worked or had worked in Swedish for-profit free schools. Whilst they found it difficult to negotiate a professional identity within a competitive school market in which social ideals and institutional norms were often in conflict (Milner, 2015), these teachers’ stories drew on ‘the imaginative professional’ (Power, 2008) to express the kind of system in which they wished to work.

This notion of narrative framing was taken up at a recent BELMAS Critical Education Policy and Leadership Studies RIG meeting, where members spoke at length about the recommendations of an Education International report by Bascia and Stevenson (2017) . Notably, Alison Ryan, Senior Policy Officer at the National Education Union (NEU), spoke about the importance to union engagement of teachers telling stories. In particular, she told us about the work of Marshall Ganz, a former union and community organiser, but now a leading academic and storyteller. He has said that the stories that mean the most to us are those that embody our values. The stories which resonate with collective experiences, hopes and fears.

In education, as Alison expressed, ‘those values are what teachers and support staff talk about when asked why they’ve entered the education profession. In surveys and meetings, over and over again, our members say that they wished to work with and make a difference to the lives of children and young people, to pass on their love of their subject, to be creative in their jobs daily, to do something meaningful… This is what we must reflect in the stories we tell, whether talking about their terms and conditions, professionalism, social justice or broader education issues’.

She went on to discuss how the NEU workload campaign enabled members to tell stories which not only embodied their values, but to build capacity and organise within the workplace. Equally, the school funding campaign reached out beyond their membership to another key group: parents. Through local networks, union branches, and communication strategies involving social media, publications and targeted mailing, community alliances were formed and public education was put at the forefront of voter concerns in the period prior to the general election. The ‘no-alternative narrative’ was no longer credible.

Thus, reframing the narrative around the values of educators and a vision of public education system as a force for good provides not only a space for hope, but is a means to collaborative action.

To be truly effective, storying an alternative discourse of education must work at an individual and collective level though. The narratives of the Swedish teachers may never have been articulated had they not participated in my study. Yet, their stories were not so divergent; they converged around common values which placed the child at the centre of the learning experience.

But researchers can only do so much to reveal areas of consensus. Teachers themselves need to speak out, speak often and speak together, if they are to move the vision of public education beyond the shadows of the cave wall.

Image sourced from: Pinterest.


Bascia N. and Stevenson H. (2017) Organising teaching: Developing the power of the profession. Brussels: Education International.

Evetts J. (2013) Professionalism: Value and ideology in Current Sociology Review, 61:5-6, 778-796. DOI: 10.1177/0011392113479316.

Milner A. (2015) ‘That’s not what I am’: teacher reflections on purpose, practice and professionalism in the Swedish free school system in FORUM, 57:2, 179-190. Didcot: Symposium Books Ltd.

Power S. (2008) The imaginative professional in B. Cunningham (2008) (ed.) Exploring Professionalism. London: IOE Press. (pp.144-160)


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