Teachers as Agents of Change in PE curricular Reform by Justine MacLean

Justine MacLean has worked as a lecturer in physical education at Moray House Institute, the School of Education of the University of Edinburgh since 1998. She has worked as a physical educator within comprehensive schools and within the commercial, charitable and voluntary sectors. Her teaching and research are in sociocultural issues within physical education.

 Policy and Curriculum Change

This blog examines the discourses on policy and curriculum change by analysing the complexities involved in enabling Physical Education teachers to enact new policy in schools utilising a flexible curriculum framework. Enactment in this case offers teachers the central role of ‘agents of change’, which requires them to translate, mould and recreate policy to fit within the opportunities of the school.  Policies generally do not tell the teacher exactly what to do: they seldom prescribe or define practice, but some more than others restrict the range of teacher response and involvement in the policy process. CfE sought to create a stronger component of ownership and creativity at school level and as such ‘reflects the growing body of evidence that teachers are among the most powerful influences on learning and are best placed to determine how best to meet the needs of their pupils’, (Donaldson, 2014, p.181).

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One way of understanding how teachers engage with and enact policy is to examine emerging research on agency, as this provides insight into how teachers relate to policy (Leansder & Osbourne, 2008). Teachers may use their agency to support new policy, develop a critical stance or even oppose educational change altogether (Sannino, 2010). Therefore, an understanding of what contributes to agency provides useful clues into the barriers and opportunities that can add or detract from a teacher’s ability to support new policy. Teacher agency has often been associated with capacity, which teachers either do or do not possess. However, agency, unlike capacity is not something that teachers have but rather something to be achieved in certain situations – it denotes a ‘quality’ of the engagement of actors with temporal-relational contexts for action, not quality of the actors themselves’ (Priestley, M., Biesta, G. & Robinson, S. 2013, p.3). The temporal nature of agency is emphasised and focuses on the factors that inhibit or promote a heightened sense of agency. Therefore, it defers emphasis away from what teachers have (capacity) onto what teachers do (by means of their environment that they act in and through). This demonstrates why ‘capacity’ is a misleading measure of teacher ability to enact policy, as it places value solely on teacher skills and knowledge rather than the interaction of what the teacher brings to the situation and the situation brings to the teacher.

Policy-1024x854In our research we considered the factors that enable teachers to achieve agency and the support mechanisms that were necessary for them to be able to enact new policy. Data was collected from 88 PE teachers from 16 local authorities and 17 PE teachers took part in interviews (MacLean, J., Mulholland, R., Gray, S. & Horrell, A. 2015).


These results indicated that the schools that possessed a collaborative culture that valued discussions on constructing policy ideas with other colleagues and created opportunities for cooperative learning felt supported in creating new ideas. The importance of teacher conversation and professional activity were crucial in assisting teachers to create policy.

Schools that contained a social structure that sought to improve external links to professional learning communities and internal links between subject areas in interdisciplinary work contributed to the teachers’ sense of agency. Teachers required an increase in material support, greater supportive leadership combined with guidance and feedback on individual curricular design. It became clear that teachers were able to enact new policy in schools when the correct support mechanisms were in place.

As educational policy moves from mandates to capacity building, there is an argument that more attention needs to be given to teachers, as in the end it is teachers’ commitment to the transformation of policy that shapes the success of initiatives.

Suggested further reading:

MacLean, J., Mulholland, R., Gray, S. & Horrell, A. (2015). Enabling curriculum change in physical education: the interplay between policy constructors and practitioners. Physical Education & Sport Pedagogy, 20(1), 79-96.

Book Chapter :  MacLean, J. (2017) In press Chapter Six ‘Physical Education Teachers as agents of policy and curriculum change’ in Thorburn, M. (Ed) (2017) Transformative Learning and Teaching in Physical Education. London: Routledge.

 References :

Donaldson, G. (2014). Teacher Education and Curriculum change in Scotland. European Journal of Education, 49(2), 178-191.

Leander, K.M. & Osborne, M.D. (2008). Complex positioning: Teachers as agents of curricular and pedagogical reform. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(1), 23-46.

Priestley, M., Biesta, G. & Robinson, S. (2013). Teachers as agents of change; teacher agency and emerging models of curriculum. In: M.Priestley & G. Biesta (eds) Reinventing the curriculum: new trends in curriculum policy and practice. London: Bloomsbury.

Sannino, A. (2010). Teachers’ talk of experiencing: Conflict, resistance and agency. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(4), 838-844.


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