Posted by: mrlock | June 6, 2014




noun: authority

  1. the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.

“he had absolute authority over his subordinates”

o  the right to act in a specified way, delegated from one person or organization to another.

“military forces have the legal authority to arrest drug traffickers”

o  official permission; sanction.

“the money was spent without parliamentary authority”

  1. a person or organization having political or administrative power and control.

“health authorities issued a worldwide alert”

Authority has become known as a dirty word in education. In an era where teachers have been seen as the guide on the side, pupil voice took a hold over many schools, and pupils have been increasingly seen as consumers, authority of teachers, of the Headteacher, and of adults in schools has not been universally seen as desirable.

I think authority is essential in schools.

One of the things that attracted me to RS Peters’ writings is that they often just manifest themselves to me as common sense. And yet the concepts of ‘authority’, ‘responsibility’, ‘education’ and ‘morality’ can be confusing, causing bewilderment of those who look at education, and even of those who work in it.

Returning to Peters’ analysis of these concepts would be a good starting point. In Authority, Responsibility and Education, a collection of talks Peters gave in the 1950s and 1960s, Peters does exactly this, starting with authority.

As Peters argues, the concept of authority is unique to man. It is unlike anything that goes on in the physical or animal world (Peters points out that hens have a pecking order, but it would be nonsensical to talk of hens exercising authority, and talking of authority as a force is similarly nonsensical for it attributes to humans similar characteristics to iron filings drawn towards a magnet).

Humans follow rules. It is this that distinguishes them from animals, and hence it is the following of rules that means that humans form social systems. Social systems entail the conformity of standards of behaviour that are passed from generation to generation, largely through speech. Humans do things that are ‘right’ or ‘correct’ just because those things are correct to do.

What these standards actually are is arbitrary, and therefore we need systems for establishing what these are, where they come from, and who decides on their application. It is these systems that give certain people (Peters identifies majors and magistrates) the right to give orders.

I heard Martin Robinson here outline (35min) that when a child asks “why?” to any question, and then asks why to the answer, your knowledge falls apart because you don’t know. In many ways this is true of authority. One might object to any imposition of authority, asking ‘why?’ continually, and the basis might fall apart, but there’s a sense to me in which authority is bound up in the unique being of humanity.

As Peters says “authority is at hand where a rule is right or a decision must be obeyed or a pronouncement accepted simply because X says so”.

Peters points out that this idea of authority might be banal (perhaps because we are becoming clearer about what is implicit when we consider authority).

Authority can come from three areas – authority can come from a belief in the legality of the rules and the perception of those who are their arbiters, authority can come from tradition such as a handed down position, or authority can come from a particular person’s character – their heroism or exceptional characteristics. A person considered an authority in nuclear physics was not put into authority but is there because of his/ her status as a result of their training, qualifications and personal achievements.

This is where I think schools I’ve worked in have sometimes got it wrong. The pupil who is in trouble responds that they feel wronged by the teacher (who for example, sent them out without giving two warnings first), and hence the school sets about to be even-handed – that perception of the pupil becomes reality. This means that the pupil ends up having ‘a nice chat’ with a head of year, followed by some kind of restorative action to sort it out.

I think that people are equal, in the sense that they have a set of rights by virtue of being human. However, people don’t have equal status. The status of the teacher is ascertained by their qualifications, by their interview, and by the position they have earned. The status of the teacher is ‘above’ that of the pupil. The teacher is in a position of authority.

But because ‘authority’ has become known as a dirty word in education, schools can try to deny this, and this leads to issues that compromise an effective learning environment.

In order to facilitate a great learning environment, authority need not be shied away from, but embraced. Peters writes:

another necessary condition for the effective exercise of authority – the expectation of being believed, followed or obeyed. People will tend to accept the decisions and obey orders in proportion as the man who makes them expects that they will. Any successful schoolmaster knows this… it is not sufficient for a man to be in fact wise if he is to exercise authority. He must be known to be so.

I think authority is essential in schools because it is important that pupils conform, including on many occasions where they don’t want to (sitting down, writing long essays, being on time, not drinking sugary drinks, looking at the person talking, being silent, practising what they think they can already do, and so on). It’s essential pupils conform in schools.

We can though, produce conformity without authority.

There is also power. To use power is to get others to do what you want by force, by threats, by economic pressure, by propaganda, by suggestion, and other such non-rational means. Animals exert power; so do brigands and hypnotists. They produce conformity without being able to give orders or without having to do so.

It is only when a system of authority breaks down or when an individual loses his authority that there must be recourse to power if conformity is to be ensured.

the concept of ‘authority’ is necessary to pinpoint ways in which behaviour is regulated without recourse to power – to force, propaganda and threats.

Of course authority can be reinforced by power. As educators, behind our instructions to pupils may be the threat of physical power when we call parents (or in Peters’ time, directly via the cane), but this shouldn’t confuse us with what authority is.

In a social system, there must be authority. The only question is what sort of authority there should be. In schools, I make the case that a version of authority based on earned status is desirable, both in order that we have an orderly environment for pupils to learn, but also so that we have authorities in every classroom in the form of teachers.



  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. Clearly an important discussion as it has repersussions for behaviour and leadership/management . I have a couple of thoughts/reflections…..

    I think your definitions of power and authority are a little muddled and perhaps a little too old fashioned and Weberian. Dare I say it a little traditional.

    I believe different sources of power/authority are suitable in different educational contexts i.e. there is no one source that can be seen as best in all circumstances.

    Schools are but a small cog in a very large societal machine. I believe that when we try to differentiate power/authority as we are encouraged to differentiate instruction we experience real problems.

    I feel that as teachers we should use as little coercion as possible.

    Looking forward to reading comments.


    • Ha! Not a little Weberian – totally (reflecting Peters) – good spot.

      I’m not sure I’m 100% on what I’m writing about. I kind of write about the essay and what I think, but I’m open to hearing.

      “as little coercion as possible” – maybe I could agree with that – but I suspect that I promote more coercion as “as little” than many others who promote ‘minimal’.


  3. I have also been thinking about Authority…and have settled on Respect as the contextualisation for Authority:


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