The Power in our Schools: Considerations for Critical Methodologies

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


A common trajectory can be identified in contemporary education research concerning the decentralisation of the bureaucracies of state education, the autonomization of school-level decision making, the ‘hollowing middle’ of local government and governance, and the plurality of educational purposes defined and exercised locally. These now entrenched features of the British education landscape are often associated with loosely defined conceptions of neo-liberalism. Global variations in these trends are equally evident in Swedish and Danish Free Schools, American Charter Schools, through to Italian, Spanish, South African and Argentine education contexts and beyond. The enduring pace of evolution of social and political agendas expose new subjectivities that researchers must consider as they seek to address or readdress the diversity of unanswered questions emerging within the contemporary school environment. Drawing from qualitative empirical research conducted through interviews and surveys with 17 leaders in six English Free Schools this paper highlights some key methodological challenges and opportunities facing academics and practitioners in recognising and addressing formations of power. Invoking elements of the relational and figurational accounts of Elias, Foucault and Mead, the paper critically explores power expressed through participants’ narratives. The comparative analysis demonstrates how interview narratives within and between schools offers insights into power structures reflected in the projections of self forwards and backwards through time. Simultaneously, the research reinforces the need for researchers to be critically aware of the power structures constructed through the interview present, and the potential implications for analysis. Specific findings from the study reflected the processes of construction of individual and group identity, and the resulting discourses embedded in the development processes of autonomous Free Schools. The findings contribute to the development of constructionist methodologies in terms of understanding how participants make sense of their relative positions through the expression of diverse affections and conations. In the context of the empirical data presented, this is illustrated in the manifestation of ‘freedom’ from one perspective as an arrangement of alternative constraints to another. Such approaches therefore enable new lines of enquiry with the capacity to challenge assumptions regarding the primacy of governance structure in diagnosing the distribution of power. The paper therefore concludes by exploring the challenges posed to researching the experience of themes traditionally presented as dichotomous, as structure and agency, leader and follower and enablement and constraint emerge as indistinguishable aspects of the same process in participant narratives regarding school leadership, management and governance.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jul 2017
EventBritish Educational Leadership, Management & Administration Society: Educational leadership for a global society: challenges, dilemmas and ways forward - Ettington Chase, Stratford-on-Avon, United Kingdom
Duration: 7 Jul 20179 Jul 2017


ConferenceBritish Educational Leadership, Management & Administration Society
Abbreviated titleBELMAS Annual Conference 2017
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • Education
  • leadership
  • power
  • critical methodology
  • Free Schools
  • neoliberalism


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