Narratives of trust, accountability and autonomy in Welsh education

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The need to establish and support high-trust professional relationships in schools has been re-affirmed frequently over the past twenty years. A broad range of research outputs, from different contexts, have concluded that the creation and maintenance of high-trust relationships in schools should be central systemic concerns. Trust, then, as a beneficial organisational concept, generally has uncontested status. Yet, it is still being widely identified as a concept in danger in many school systems. In part, notions that low-trust cultures are persisting, are themselves bolstered by fears that certain types of accountability structures and processes may have a negative impact on trust within schools. In addition, low-trust cultures have been linked to the re-configuration of professional autonomy for teachers in some school systems. Here, existing research suggests that restrictions on professional autonomy can lead to reduced perceptions for teachers of being trusted to fulfil the important social function of educating young people.

This project notes the links between trust, accountability and autonomy, and also notes the importance of exploring these concepts in different contexts. There are important contextual variations between, for example, accountability systems and cultural norms of teacher autonomy. The project sets out to develop a more detailed understanding of the ways in which trust, accountability and autonomy are represented in Wales at this moment in time. It does so specifically because the Welsh education system is engaged in a period of significant reform and review. Many of the intended reforms are directly related to trust, accountability and autonomy.

The project explores the interview responses of twelve secondary school teachers across Wales, using a model of narrative inquiry to examine their individual stories of trust, accountability and professional autonomy. Each narrative is analysed to investigate the ways in which the participants experience the three associated concepts, paying particular attention to their evocations of lived experience and their points of narrative emphasis. The potential for narrative to make sense of professional environments is an important foundational premise for the project. The participants’ narratives are presented individually, as a set of responses to trust, accountability and autonomy, in this particular context. Echoes, structural similarities and points of correspondence across the narratives have been analysed to produce a set of twelve resonant narrative threads that each identify an aspect of the concepts in this context.

The resonant threads themselves suggest anxieties about professional worth and validation. Teachers engage in three, protracted domains of self-interrogation. ‘In a low-trust environment’, they ask themselves, ‘how will my professional worth be valued by others?’ ‘Will I have to work harder to demonstrate my professional worth?’ ‘How will I gain promotion, or even maintain my professional position?’ In response, teachers are constructing new ways of accommodating these perceived anxieties in order to maintain positive perceptions of professional self-worth. This project makes a contribution to knowledge through its detailed depiction of the varying ways trust, accountability and autonomy can be perceived and represented by secondary school teachers in Wales. As such, it adds to the knowledge base of how reforms in Wales should proceed, and how the reforms are likely to be understood by elements of the workforce.
Date of Award1 Oct 2020
Original languageEnglish


  • trust
  • accountability
  • autonomy
  • narrative

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