You would expect from an esteemed narrative theorist a masterful display of anecdotes, analysis and theory and Prof. Ivor Goodson did not disappoint. Presenting to the Belmas Critical Educational Policy and Leadership Studies Research Interest Group, Ivor described how his interest in narratives emerged when he and Andy Hargreaves were given $1million to develop an approach for researching change in school that would explain why so much has been invested in school reform with so little to show for it. Their response was to create two databases: an archive of school reform and collect narratives of teachers, comparing cohorts from 1960’s, 1980-90’s and 2000’s.
The research identified that in previous years there was a narrative that brought headteachers and teachers together in a common purpose for changing young people’s lives through education. This narrative collapsed after a sustained managerialist attack on the teaching profession and public education, which engendered three considerable consequences: First, in the ‘paradox of performativity’, which reads that although the managerial reforms sought to improve the 10% of worst teachers, the management and accountability regimes that were introduced consistently drove out the most creative and effective teachers (see Goodson 2003). Second, the loss of these teachers precipitated a ‘corporate memory loss’ of years of excellent teaching experience that left the profession when the best teachers retired or left. Third, many teachers now see teaching as a job to be done and survived until the weekend or retirement.
Following Ivor’s presentation there was a lively debate around the role, advantages and constraints of using narrative theory to understand and engage with the right’s ideological attack on various aspects of the public and those working in education. Narrative theory is clearly a useful tool in mapping and relating these changes but in analytical terms it is very crowded area. Why prioritise narrative over culture, identity, discourse, ideology, articulation or assemblage theories? Narratives are a useful metaphors or organising constructs for understanding the world but, for example, social psychology’s fundamental attribution error cautions that people often over-emphasise individual and agential explanations to the detriment of situational or structural concerns.
More significantly for me, I am unsure what narrative theory provides those seeking to develop an alternative political project furthering social justice? Christian Salmon’s (2010) ‘Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind’ documents how narratives have been adopted by global capitalism, right-wing political parties, and in war and empire building supported by considerable symbolic capital and technological capacity to stunning effect. In comparison, the left has arguably been devoid of compelling narratives and a pitiful in capacity to promote them, leaving the manufacture of values and myths to marketing executives and political ‘spin doctors’.
Deciding ‘what to do…’ I do not believe that a compelling story would be sufficient to remediate the neoliberal hegemony. Dunleavy et al (2005) notes that the neoliberal or managerial take-over of the public sector included a critique (a narrative) it also presented a battery of tools and approaches, from accounting to cost-benefit analysis, that were inscribed with and reinforced neoliberal rationalities. I believe it is crucial to understand the role of these tools and rationalities and develop equivalent apparatuses for a more cooperative and collaborative approach to organising in the public sector. But maybe in the beginning we need to start with a good story to inform, guide and drive us forward…