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'At the wheel or back seat drivers?': The role of teachers in contemporary curriculum reform

Dawn Penney and Brad Fox
Department of Human Movement Studies
The University of Queensland
This paper is concerned with the role that teachers have played in recent 'reforms' of education and specifically the degree to which they are able to influence the direction and nature of changes in school curricula. The discussion centres on whether teachers are in a position of 'direct control', initiating and developing changes, or whether they are merely 're-directing' developments that have been set in place and are being steered by others. A focus of this discussion is the implementation of the National Professional Development Project 'Reviewing the Curriculum in the Health and Physical Education Key Learning Area: A Model for Professional Development Using the Health and Physical Education Statement and Profile in Australian Schools', funded by the Australian Commonwealth Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DEETYA). Important limitations to the influence and role of teachers in contemporary educational 'reforms' and possible ways in which they can be repositioned centrally in the ongoing implementation of these reforms are highlighted. The paper concludes with recommendations as to how repositioning may be achieved in future policy initiatives directed towards educational reform.

At a time of extensive and worldwide educational reform instigated by central governments, questions are being posed about who is shaping the form and content of teaching and learning in schools and in particular the role and influence of teachers in curriculum change. The development of the national curriculum in England and Wales and the national Statements and Profiles in Australia have highlighted the significance of who are positioned as the 'makers' or 'writers' of education policy. The interests that these individuals represent, embrace or conversely fail to acknowledge or address will be critical in determining the direction of developments and in turn the people that they engage or alienate. Our concern here is how often teachers are included within such influential groups and the extent to which the views and interests of teachers are embraced and addressed by writers.

In the development of the National Curriculum in England and Wales, the Secretary of State for Education appointed the members of each of the working groups that were established to advise the government on the subject matter to be addressed in each of the ten subjects (in Wales, eleven, with the inclusion of Welsh language) included in the National Curriculum. The marginal representation of practicing teachers in policy making was particularly apparent in the formulation of the physical education (PE) working group. Although it may be hard for some to believe, this group contained no practicing PE teachers. As Evans and Penney (1995) have documented, the group included representatives of tertiary institutions, business and professional sport. One observer reflected that the inclusion of the latter seemed '... a bit like asking a formula 1 racing driver's advice on how to design a public transport system' (Fox, 1992, p. 8).

In the development of this and other National Curriculum subjects, the exclusion of teachers reflected their position as receivers of a curriculum being designed by others. Certainly, they had very limited scope to express their views and interests. Consultation on draft proposals was notably restricted in terms of both agendas and timescales. Typically, responses were required within a matter of weeks and there was little scope to deviate from the issues specified (Penney, 1994). Political agendas very clearly directed the direction and pace of developments, and not just in the case of physical education. Duncan Graham, then the Chairman of the National Curriculum Council (NCC) created to oversee the work of all the subject groups, has documented the influence and interference of civil servants and government ministers in the development of all subjects. For example, he describes the task of the mathematics working group as having been '... to deliver what was required within carefully prescribed limits' (p. 30, our emphasis) and explains that 'when it came to history ... Kenneth Clarke (the then Secretary of State for Education) simply cut the bits he did not like' (Graham with Tytler, 1993, p. 62).

Maguire (1995, p. 119) has articulated the implications of these characteristics of policy making for the professional identity and role of teachers. She explains that:

... the teacher is being reconstructed as the practical person, the doer not the thinker, the manager not the scholar ... a deliverer and tester of a National Curriculum, a deskilled technician who implements other people's policies.
As Bell (1995) has highlighted, the result for many teachers has been frustration and dissatisfaction, feeling that their own effectiveness has been diminished by the demands and pace of the government's reforms. Furthermore, these are feelings and reactions that in our experience are not unique to teachers in England and Wales but are common amongst teachers in Australia (see Penney & Glover, forthcoming).

A further critical characteristic of contemporary reforms in England and Wales and Australia lies in the school contexts in which developments have been set and implemented. These are contexts in which teachers' workloads have increased as demands have come for greater 'accountability' and evidence of 'efficiency' in market oriented education systems, and in which assessment and reporting requirements have become an uppermost concern. Politicians, the media and parents expect schools and teachers to generate results by which their performances in the education market can be judged (see, for example, Scott, 1994). The resulting conditions in schools are far from conducive to critical reflection and development on the part of individual teachers, departments or whole school staff. The time, the support and (increasingly) the incentive for undertaking critical reflection is all too scarce.

These two features of contemporary reforms - firstly the arrangements for policy development and secondly the contexts and conditions of implementation - have underpinned previous emphases of the notably limited voice that teachers of physical education have had in shaping policy and their limited capacity to be proactive, critical and creative in their responses (see for example, Penney & Evans, 1997). Observers have then sought to identify ways in which teachers can, from this position of apparent marginality and reduced autonomy (Bell, 1995), contest and counter the direction and pressures inheren t in the dominant discourses, successfully resist the pressures and direction 'from above' and 'all around' and develop alternative agendas (see Harris & Penney, 1997). Such analyses and exploration have essentially been concerned with how, from a 'back seat' position, teachers can redirect 'reforms' that some have seen as expressing and privileging damaging courses of action in education.


The National Professional Development Project (NPDP) 'Reviewing the Curriculum in the Health and Physical Education (HPE) Key Learning Area (KLA): A Model for Professional Development Using the Health and Physical Education Statement and Profile in Australian Schools', was funded by the Commonwealth Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DEETYA). This project was conducted during the three years 1994, 1995 and 1996 and addressed the implementation of the national statement and profile produced for the HPE KLA (see AEC, 1994a; 1994b). The project involved teachers in primary and secondary schools in Queensland and Victoria and was directed by a consortium comprising representatives of the Victorian Board of Studies, the Victorian Directorate of School Education, the Queensland Department of Education (Education Services Directorate), Deakin University, The University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology, the Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation (ACHPER) and the Curriculum Corporation. School Liaison Officers were employed to work with teachers in project schools and an external evaluation of the project was commissioned in 1996 (see Penney, 1997). Details of the methods, focus and findings of the project are reported fully in three project reports (NPDP HPE Project, 1995; 1996; 1997) and have been summarised in publications elsewhere (see for example Kirk, 1996).

A notable characteristic of the NPDP HPE project was that it clearly sought to position teachers more centrally in a context of 'national' reform. An explicit aim was for project work to be 'school based', with specific local conditions, needs and interests being accommodated and expressed in curriculum development and teachers having a central role in determining the focus of developments in their school (see NPDP HPE Project, 1995, 1996, 1997).

Despite these aims, there were some important limits to teachers' apparent control of the project developments. A point to note is that these aims and the desire for teachers to play a central role in curriculum development were matters decided upon by those designing and managing the project, not the teachers involved. In important respects (and particularly in terms of the focus on the national statement and profile, as well as the timescale for developments, and thus pace of those developments), the framework within which developments would be set was determined for rather than by teachers. As in more obviously 'externally imposed' initiatives, the timescale for curriculum development emerged as a particularly critical issue in the NPDP HPE project work. Ultimately the pace of developments was necessarily modified as the scarcity of time within schools for curriculum review and planning became all too apparent (see NPDP HPE Project, 1995; 1996).

Accompanying and reflected in these problems relating to time for development within schools was another common failing of externally initiated developments and reforms - the absence of adequate resources to support the curriculum development process and the professional development needs of teachers attempting to undertake challenging changes to their thinking and practices. Although workshops were held for project school teachers (three state-based workshops in 1994, two in 1995 and one in 1996) and school liaison officers (SLOs) were employed to visit schools and offer support to teachers, these activities were restricted by budgetary constraints. The external evaluation of the NPDP HPE project drew attention not only to the undoubted value of the support provided but also to its clear limitations, particularly the potential benefits of more release time for the teachers involved (Penney, 1997).

Despite these shortcomings, the NPDP HPE project undoubtedly raised important issues in relation to contemporary reforms in education. In particular, it served to highlight that even in constrained contexts teachers can and do take a decisive lead in many developments and pursue directions that are of value and interest to them, rather than following courses largely dictated or shaped by others. In the next section of the paper we present three NPDP HPE schools as cases illustrating both the constraints and the potential for teachers to be the central players in curriculum developments. The schools selected are contrasting cases. They are all schools with which one of the authors had contact initially as a School Liaison Officer and later as the Project Officer for the NPDP HPE project in Queensland during 1994, 1995 and 1996. Rural State High School, Seaside State High School and Tropical Girls' College are the pseudonyms for the case schools. The names given to the key teachers involved are also pseudonyms.


The NPDP HPE project certainly saw teachers creatively establishing their own agendas according to their unique situations, interests and school contexts. In so doing they sought to redefine and redirect in a myriad of ways the 'directions' provided by the project management team1 and the national texts. Inherent in the variety was a common element of pragmatism. We saw very clearly that teachers' involvement in a project that gives rise to extra work for them (albeit with some support in the form of teacher relief time) is definitely going to be on their own terms. In many cases teachers had an identified 'weakness' in their school curriculum that they had been aware of for some time and that in their view needed attention. In this context the project provided welcome, even if inadequate, support for addressing the particular problems. In other instances it provided invaluable support for mandated and externally initiated curriculum change. Notably, the development of the NPDP HPE project in Victoria coincided with the Victorian Board of Studies' development and introduction of the Curriculum Standards Framework - a state system response to the nationally developed Statements and Profiles (see Board of Studies, 1995).

Irrespective of the particular motives underpinning involvement, however, it was evident that many teachers who became involved were purposefully looking for opportunities to initiate innovation and curriculum renewal. Teachers showing an interest in the project were invariably people who were prepared to give 'that bit extra' to improve teaching and learning in their schools. It is people like this who can and do initiate, take control of and lead curriculum development in schools and who will be committed to seeing 'real change' (Sparkes, 1991), not merely cosmetic changes that provide a surface appearance that policies have been successfully 'implemented'. Three teachers who responded in this positive manner to the NPDP HPE project will now be considered. The differences between their experiences draw attention to the support and encouragement within schools that is critical in enabling able and committed staff to fulfil their potential as reflective and progressive practitioners.

Rural State High School

At Rural SHS, Tracy was an experienced Health and Physical Education teacher. As the head of sport in a high school of 1200 students, just completing a Masters Degree in health education and an applicant for Head of Department positions, she was a capable operator. However, the NPDP HPE project at Rural SHS showed very clearly that without the support of colleagues, the potential for one teacher to initiate 'real change' in schools is severely limited.

Tracy's attempts to bring together the Heads of Department for both Home Economics and Health and Physical Education in order to develop a Key Learning Area curriculum proved largely fruitless. Her colleagues did not share her interest in reorientating the work of the two departments. A school administration that liked the idea of involvement in the project, but not the prospect of its giving rise to requests for staff support, was a further barrier that Tracy faced.

Ultimately, the developments initiated at Rural SHS resulted in Tracy writing new work programs (but only at year 8 level and only in HPE) and her colleagues teaching from them. 'Real change' occurred in Tracy's class only and even there she met with resistance from students who were receiving different and seemingly contradictory messages in lessons taught by colleagues. Understandably, the result for Tracy was frustration at the relative lack of commitment displayed by others. Her direction and drive appeared to have led to a dead end.

Seaside State High School

At Seaside SHS, Sue was head of the Home Economics department and a key player in curriculum development at a school level. She saw the NPDP HPE project as an ideal professional development opportunity for her staff. She had a clear vision for the department and used the resources available in the project to fulfil some of her goals. An important point to note, however, is that inherent in this vision and leadership was also a clear commitment to other teachers' determining the pace of change and to their working collaboratively in the project. Together, Sue and her staff critiqued their year 8 curriculum, identifying what they saw as the particular strengths and weaknesses of the work program. They then addressed their goals for student learning, focusing on the unique needs arising in a school where students come from low socio-economic backgrounds, arrive at school after a morning surf, often having had no breakfast and visibly 'fade' as the day wears on.

Working collaboratively meant that staff not only shared in this reflection, but also divided the workload of planning and re-writing units of work. As a result everybody had some ownership of the program from its development stage and a clear role in the ongoing implementation. The department also established mechanisms for evaluating their own progress at regular intervals, enabling them to fine tune the new work program. This systematic approach to curriculum development led to significant changes in course content, teaching methods and assessment procedures at Seaside SHS. There were very 'real' changes in philosophy and practices of some of the teachers and in the learning seen among students.

Another interesting feature of the work initiated at Seaside SHS was the design and administration of questionnaires to parents of the year 8 Home Economics students. The questionnaires asked about any conversations arising at home relating to diet and any suggestions forthcoming from students relating to changes in breakfast foods and/or food shopping. Questionnaire responses showed the staff at Seaside SHS that students were transferring much of their school learning to the contexts of their own homes. This was evident, for example, in their encouragement of parents to include new foods in the family's weekly shopping, foods that were healthy, cheap, nutritious and easily prepared. Both this and the fact that more students than ever before chose Home Economics for year 9 was evidence of student interest in the new year 8 course.

It is worth pursuing the matter of why Sue was able to succeed in motivating and involving others while Tracy struggled to do so. The answers lie not only in positions, experience, knowledge and personalities of these two teachers, but also of those around them. Sue's influence from her position as a head of department and her commitment to the professional growth of all of her staff in the curriculum reform process were certainly key factors in the successful initiation of a collaborative venture. Also critical at Seaside SHS was the time made available within the department for collaborative planning and the accommodation of differing levels of interest in and acceptance of the proposed changes. The process of change was not easy, nor could it be rushed. Notably, however, change became an established focus for staff, with new organisational and work practices enabling them to take on new challenges as they were identified.

While these achievements were seen in Sue's department, she was unable to gain wider support for the project. The Health and Physical Education Department, the other key player in the Key Learning Area, preferred to wait until curriculum change became mandatory within the state and declined to be involved in the project. In addition, Sue was to some degree constrained by 'whole school' issues. In particular, the developments in assessment undertaken by the Home Economics Department were required to fit with the school's existing reporting structure.

Tropical Girls' College

Tropical Girls' College was a private school committed to keeping up to date in curriculum matters. Here many of the barriers to curriculum development that had been encountered in other schools were being overcome. A key factor in this scenario was the active interest that the principal at Tropical Girls' College took in the NPDP HPE project. The principal asked for regular meetings to report on progress and requested that Denise, the teacher leading the project's development in the school, regularly brief the whole staff on progress. It was evident that the principal regarded Denise as a facilitator of school-wide change.

With this 'whole school' commitment and interest, both Home Economics and the Science Departments became collaborators in a joint curriculum development project with Health and Physical Education. Together staff produced a common introductory module at year 8 level that eliminated content overlap and streamlined prerequisite learnings for all three subject areas. The type of work developed involved students using the internet to gather information about health issues. They employed a socially critical model to pursue both whose knowledge was represented and whose they would value. The success of this development led to preliminary meetings to develop an outcomes based curriculum across the whole school.

Cross-departmental collaboration like this was a rare experience in the NPDP HPE project. Encouragingly, however, the work developed at Tropical Girls' College has generated interest amongst other schools in the district. Denise's active role in professional associations, the Diocesan Curriculum Committee and her informal professional contacts have all played a part in this wider dissemination. Denise's leadership in professional development has thus ensured that the momentum of change has been sustained beyond the life of support from the project and has gone beyond its original geographical remit.

The support of the school administration for the project and a commitment to the development of integrated modules of work, drawing upon expertise and content from various subjects and learning areas, were critical in facilitating collaborative work and notable success in the project at Tropical Girls College. Denise enjoyed support not seen at Rural or Seaside State High Schools and the benefits of this were very clear in the scope and relative success of the developments arising from the project.


Collectively these three cases serve to highlight conditions that would seem to be critical in generating and supporting 'real change' in schools, and providing teachers with opportunities to lead curriculum developments that reflect and pursue their own interests. These conditions are: Many factors thus contribute to the creation of an environment in which teachers can play the type of role that Denise in particular demonstrated in the NPDP HPE project. As the case studies have illustrated, structural issues, individuals and relationships are all critical in encouraging and supporting, or alternatively impeding, curriculum development. As Fullan (1993, p. 49) has stressed, 'to restructure is not to reculture ... Changing formal structures is not the same as changing norms, habits, skills and beliefs', but equally, there is a need to acknowledge that structural conditions can facilitate or inhibit the spread of changes in these norms, habits, skills and beliefs. In the light of our earlier discussion of the marginality of teachers in contemporary reform, it is notable that the degree of success at Tropical Girls School was rare in the NPDP HPE project. However, even in conditions far from ideal for curriculum development, we saw the potential for teachers to initiate reflective and progressive work, even if within boundaries. The developments emerging in this project therefore serve to remind us that the role and influence of teachers and the importance of their professionalism should never be underestimated or overlooked.

Finally, we return to our concern for how we can move from the position of teachers receiving and striving to adapt reforms to one in which they have greater influence beyond schools and 'more-of-a-say' in directing rather than redirecting developments. In the NPDP HPE project we saw some teachers gain the skills and confidence to begin to play such a role and, via professional associations and other forums, place themselves in a position to do so. At the same time however, we acknowledge that teachers' influence and role in curriculum reform remains to a great extent at the mercy of those beyond schools and professional associations. Reflecting on events in the United Kingdom, Bell (1995, p. 17) has observed that 'Clearly teachers need to restore a sense of control over their own work but this can only come about if the government is willing to explore a new partnership and re-define the existing relationship with the teaching profession'.

To close we draw on one of the teachers from the NPDP HPE project to reinforce the value of partnerships in which teachers are given the opportunity to regain control that in many instances they feel they have lost amidst the many reforms in education. This teacher said:

In my opinion the NPDP has done a great thing. It has elevated the average classroom teacher to the status of expert. For many of them it is not something that sits comfortably. They have almost forgotten what it is like to be valued rather that ignored or deliberately excluded as a group with vested interests opposed to those of the state. They underestimate their abilities and contribution to the development of curriculum around the nation. (NPDP HPE Project, 1995, p. 18).


Australian Education Council. (1994a). A statement on health and physical education for Australian schools. Carlton: Curriculum Corporation.

Australian Education Council. (1994b). Health and physical education: A curriculum profile for Australian schools. Carlton: Curriculum Corporation.

Bell, J. (1995). Teachers talk about teaching: Coping with change in turbulent times. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

Board of Studies, Victoria. (1995). Curriculum standards framework: Health and physical education. Carlton, Victoria: Board of Studies.

Evans, J. & Penney, D. (1995). The politics of pedagogy : Making a national curriculum - Physical Education. Journal of Education Policy, 10(1), 27-44.

Fox, K. (1992). Education for exercise and the national curriculum proposals: A step forwards or backwards. British Journal of Physical Education, 23(1), 8-11.

Fullan, M. (1993). Change forces: Probing the depths of educational reform. London: The Falmer Press.

Graham, D. with Tytler, D. (1993). A lesson for us all: The making of the national curriculum. London: Routledge.

Harris, J. & Penney, D. (1997). Putting health first: An alternative policy and practice for Physical Education. Pedagogy in Practice, 3(1), 37-55.

Kirk, D. (1996). An Introduction to the Reviewing Curriculum in Health and Physical Education Project. The ACHPER Healthy Lifestyles Journal, 43(3), 5-7.

Maguire, M. (1995). Dilemmas in teaching teachers: The tutor's perspective. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and practice, 1(1), 119-131.

The National Professional Development Program (NPDP) Health and Physical Education (HPE) Project. (1995, 1996, 1997). Annual Reports - Reviewing curriculum in the Health and Physical Education Key Learning Area: A model for professional development using the Health and Physical Education Statement and Profile for Australian Schools. Canberra: DEETYA.

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Penney, D. (1997). Report of the External Evaluation of the Health and Physical Education Project - Reviewing curriculum in the Health and Physical Education Key Learning Area: A model for professional development using the Health and Physical Education Statement and Profile for Australian Schools. Brisbane: The University of Queensland, Department of Human Movement Studies.

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Penney, D. & Glover, S. (1998). Contested identities: A comparative analysis of the position and definitions of physical education in national curriculum developments in England and Wales and Australia. European Journal of Physical Education, 3(1). http://www.pea.uk.com/v%203%20No%201%201998,.htm#v%203%20No%201%201998,.htm

Scott, D. (Ed.) (1994). Accountability and control in educational settings. London: Cassell Education.

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This paper has been developed from a presentation at the Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA) Biennial Conference Curriculum '97: Negotiating the Curriculum: Whose Agenda?, Faculty of Education, The University of Sydney, July 10-13 1997. It draws on data gathered in the National Professional Development Project (NPDP) 'Reviewing Curriculum in the Health and Physical Education (HPE) Key Learning Area: A Model for Professional Development Using the Health and Physical Education Statement and Profile in Australian Schools', funded by the Commonwealth Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DEETYA), 1994-1996. The support provided by DEETYA is appreciated. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not represent the views of either the NPDP HPE project partners or DEETYA.


  1. The NPDP HPE project management team compri sed representatives of the Victorian Board of Studies, the Victorian Directorate of School Education, the Queensland Department of Education (Education Services Directorate), Deakin University, The University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology, and the Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation (ACHPER).

Author details: Dawn Penney is a Research Fellow with the Department of Human Movement Studies, The University of Queensland. Since 1990 she has been involved in policy and curriculum research, centring firstly on the development of the National Curriculum for Physical Education in England and Wales and most recently, policy and curriculum developments in Australia associated with the key learning area of Health and Physical Education (HPE).

Brad Fox is an experienced teacher of Health and Physical Education in both primary and secondary schools. From 1995-1996 he was the Project Officer for the National Professional Development Program HPE project and is now Head of Department (HPE and Sport) at Bray Park State High School, Queensland.

Please cite as: Penney, D. and Fox, B. (1997). 'At the wheel or back seat drivers?': The role of teachers in contemporary curriculum reform. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 13(2), 14-27. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer13/penney.html

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Created 18 Mar 2005. Last revision: 18 Mar 2005.
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