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Standing on the Pavement Talking Critically About Educational Leadership

Editorial Introduction:

I am very pleased to be able to publish this blog by Professor Helen Gunter and I hope that readers will be motivated to go and read the full MiE article she refers to here. If you have any comments or thoughts about this blog and the points it raises, then do share on Twitter using the hashtag #BELMASblog.

– Suzanne Culshaw

Helen M Gunter

Standing on the Pavement Talking Critically About Educational Leadership

I was once in a seminar where a senior member of the National College for School Leadership  espoused that educational professionals should not do critical work as it makes them feel guilty. Such a statement was and remains designed to make any form of criticality unthinkable, and so secure policy delivery through active passivity – educational professionals have to be enthusiastic about doing things that are not about education. Remembering this event was part of the retirement process, whereby I transitioned from professor of education policy on 31st August 2021 to professor emerita on 1st September 2021. This change was to enable me to get on with my work, and it required me to reflect on the experiences of 41 years of full time employment. One enjoyable task was to look at the names and doctoral thesis titles of the 38 educational professionals I had worked with, and I thought about how they had demanded, relished and gained from taking a critical approach to professional practices. Yes there were challenges in both private and professional lives, but there was never guilt.

An article entitled ‘Standing on the pavement talking critically about educational leadership’ published in Management in Education is a product of these reflections. I asked six doctoral graduates to write some thoughts about the dynamic meaning and experiences of criticality, and based on these notes as a form of professional review and evaluation I developed a critical analysis of critical professionality. Notably I used the metaphor of standing on the pavement based on an extract from Alan Bennett’s diaries from 1997, where I read the notes in regard to Bennett recalling how he was in conversation while standing on the pavement, and was rudely told to get out of the way by an impatient and anti-intellectual shopper. The shopper could be anyone who claims that those who stand and talk in order to problem pose, think out loud and develop social justice opportunities are in the way of those who are doing relevant and authentic activity. It seems that consumerism means we are all rendered shoppers who engage in ordinary and commentary forms of criticality through giving opinions, voting on reality TV shows, and filling in questionnaires at the end of a meal. The notes from the six doctoral graduates demonstrate a different form of criticality that is integral to what it means to undertake professional action, not least how independent primary research is vital to understanding pedagogy, the curriculum and assessment. Rather than getting in the way, intellectual work is necessary for engagement in and leadership of localised policy making, not least because issues of access, inclusion, and productive educational relationships require something more than neat and tidy lists of  bullet points that simplify the ‘what works agenda’ into a normative exhortation for busyness. This ‘something more’ is about how criticality can examine what pavements exist, why, and who stands on them, who is missing, and who controls them, and importantly how educational professionals can design and build their own pavements with their students.


Bennett, A. (1997) Writing Home. London: Faber and Faber.

Gunter, H.M. (2022) Standing on the pavement talking critically about educational leadership. Management in Education. DOI: 10.1177/08920206221145630.

Gunter, H.M. (2012) Leadership and the Reform of Education. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Gunter, H.M. and Willmott, R. (2001) Biting the bullet. Management in Education, 15 (5), 35-37.


Helen M Gunter is Professor Emerita in The Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester, UK. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, and recipient of the BELMAS Distinguished Service Award 2016. Her research focuses on the political sociology of knowledge production in the field of education policy. Her most recent book is: A Political Sociology of Education Policy (2023, Policy Press).

Contact details:

Address: The Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL.