Leraar in een klaslokaal op de basisschool
Leraar in een klaslokaal op de basisschool

Teacher autonomy still in its early stages

Teachers need leeway when teaching classes and administering exams. Autonomy is important to be able to tailor teaching to the needs of the pupil. But with education under increasing pressure, the leeway that teachers have is shrinking. How much room does the law allow for teacher autonomy when it clashes with the expectations of assertive pupils and parents, and the demands of the school board? Job Buiting examined how this autonomy is safeguarded by law, and whether it should be strengthened. He will defend his doctorate at Radboud University’s Faculty of Law on 16 April.

Autonomy is an important asset for many teachers, as previous studies have shown. It is essential for teachers to have a certain degree of freedom when shaping their curriculum, and how they administer exams. This also has tangible benefits for pupils, because it allows teachers to gear their teaching to the needs of the pupils. But in practice, this autonomy offers little security under the law, Buiting’s research shows. 

The teacher’s leeway often depends on the agreements reached at each individual school. Buiting: ‘If a school board gives teachers little or no leeway, that autonomy is very fragile. This could result in the teaching profession becoming less attractive, especially now that there are serious shortages of teachers.’

Being called into line

Students and their parents have become more assertive in recent years. According to Buiting, this is evident in the decisions concerning exams, among other things. ‘The diplomas awarded when exams are passed are obviously important for society. A lot depends on them as far as pupils are concerned too. But if pupils are not satisfied with the way the examination was held, there is little they can do. They can take their case to court, but the court is not going to review a chemistry exam. That judge does not have expertise or the authority to call the teacher into line.’ 

Buiting: ‘This is reflected, for instance, in the school’s recommendation regarding the choice of secondary school at the end of primary school. This decision determines the pupil’s school career path going forward, but this is precisely where the teacher has a great deal of autonomy. When giving the school recommendation, the teacher weighs up which level of secondary education is appropriate, based on the learning outcomes, the outcome of the exam taken at the end of primary school and the pupil’s socio-emotional development.' Buiting also points out other, exceptional recent developments. For example, in 2023, a special education teacher decided to take her pupils to the Efteling theme park without informing parents or the school board. ‘That teacher ended up being summarily dismissed because she did it surreptitiously. She failed to gauge properly where the boundaries of her autonomy lay.’ 

Professional body

According to Buiting, one possible solution would be to introduce a professional body for teachers. ‘These organisations and bodies exist in the legal profession, in healthcare, and in all kinds of other professions where you are at the heart of the community. But there is still no professional group that protects teachers on a national scale. A group like this could help draw up guidelines and professional standards so that everyone knows what to expect from a teacher. But it could also make a case, for instance, for a minimum preparation time per lesson, or the maximum number of pupils in a class. Without a strong professional body that makes its voice heard and will itself help to determine how education should be formed, teachers will remain dependent on school boards and legislators in The Hague.’

Contact information

Meer weten? Neem contact op met Job Buiting of met Persvoorlichting & Wetenschapscommunicatie via 024 361 6000 of media [at] ru.nl (media[at]ru[dot]nl). 

Career, Education, Law