The social justice agency of secondary school headteachers

Jefferys, Christine (2022) The social justice agency of secondary school headteachers. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


This study explores the nature and scope of headteacher agency for social justice within a neo-liberal political landscape and market-driven education system. It sets out to both expand and disrupt ways in which the possibilities and limits of school leadership agency are understood by examining how headteachers discursively construct social justice and how this influences the way social justice is understood and enacted within two English secondary schools.

The findings of the study are based on qualitative research, using data collected from interviews with seven headteachers and an ethnographic study of two secondary schools. Using a post-structuralist lens and drawing on Foucauldian understandings of power, notably theories of 'dispositif' and heterotopia, the thesis interrogates how agonistic professional agency operates within a multi-paradigmatic organisational space of contradictory, nuanced and intertwined axiological discourses.

While the interviews with headteachers illustrated tensions between neo-liberal and communitarian visions of school effectiveness, the thesis argues that headteacher agency for social justice cannot be understood as a simple binary between neo-liberal work and social justice work. The ethnographic studies demonstrated how, within the neo-liberal ‘regimes of truth’ that governed the parameters of their agency, headteachers' personal cultures of social justice had legitimacy and discursive power in shaping distinctive, heterotopic, educational spaces that re-ordered ‘the local’ and ‘the global’. Within these spaces, headteachers preserved, protected, nourished and cultivated a range of social justice practices that contributed to both the affirmative and transformative forms of agency proposed in Fraser’s paradigm of social justice (1997). Most notably, in questioning the extent to which the agency of headteachers reproduced or challenged structural inequities within education and wider society, my findings suggest that affective social justice is a pivotal discourse in refusing the dominance of market-oriented subjectification.

I hope the study will inform new conversations about headteachers’ role as civic and educational leaders who are producers as well as receivers of national education discourse; structural reformers as well as system leaders.

Jefferys-Christine_11.10.2022.pdf - Published Version

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