Teachers as agents of change
: Teachers’ constructions of curricular change: a qualitative analysis of the STEPS PD Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS) programme in Northern Ireland primary schools

  • Joanne Gardiner

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Educational change has been a dominant feature of the educational landscape nationally and internationally whereby schools have been ‘subjected to constant and ubiquitous pressures to innovate’ (Priestley, 2011). Whilst the key objective is to enhance educational provision and to ensure more efficient and effective outcomes it is the strategic positioning of teachers as agents of change that is deemed to be integral to the success of innovation and its enactment in practice. Physical Education (PE) has not evaded this reform agenda as evidenced by the growing trend towards the adoption of movement orientated programmes. In Northern Ireland (NI) the implementation of one such programme, Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS) (STEPS Professional Development) provides the backdrop for this study and a platform through which to interrogate educational change within the context of primary Physical Education. The study explores the ways in which teachers enact and engage with a specific PE movement initiative, the FMS programme (STEPS PD) and utilises the lenses of change agentry (Fullan, 1993a) and Priestley et al.’s (2015a) ecological conception of teacher agency to provide insight into ‘the dynamic process through which change and continuity occurs in educational settings’(Priestley et al., 2012b, p193). The study specifically examines the influence of the macro level environment on how schools respond to educational change, how the school context shapes teachers’ agency and the factors that influence teacher agency at an individual level in the enactment of the FMS programme.

A qualitative, interpretivist research methodology was employed as a means of understanding the experiences and multiple realities of teachers as they enacted curricular change in their own schools. Qualitative data were gathered by interviewing principals, PE co-ordinators and teachers in three primary schools involved in the piloting and subsequent implementation of the STEPS PD FMS programme. A specialist group of FMS experts was also purposively selected to provide a more detailed deconstruction of the policy context pertaining to FMS in Northern Ireland. All data was analysed thematically.
Findings suggest that teacher agency is temporally orientated, highly situative and dependent upon existing cultures of thinking, working and doing which are specific to individual schools and to individual teachers (Priestley et al.,2015a).Findings also demonstrate that change is mediated by the macro policy context where competing policy imperatives distort and skew the objectives of schools away from the holistic development of the child to towards academic outcomes and performance. The infiltration of neoliberalist ideology which permeated school cultures undoubtedly created challenges for teachers in their enactment of a child-centred PE initiative like the FMS programme. However, despite this, analysis of the data revealed that individual teachers and leaders were able to challenge these prevailing macro level policy prescriptions and contradictions around PE to achieve agency in their own contexts. The findings of this study therefore present new perspectives surrounding the influence of neoliberal technologies and their impact on teachers’ constructions of change.

This study provides valuable insights into the implementation of curricular innovation within the context of primary PE. It sheds light on the outworking of the FMS programme as a key PE initiative and presents new knowledge surrounding the ways in which teachers play out their roles as change agents in enacting this innovation. The study therefore provides a new interpretation of the FMS programme within the context of NI schools that has previously not been made. It applies existing theories to bring about new evidence to the existing knowledge surrounding educational change (Phillips and Pugh, 2010) within PE and raises important questions for policy and practice in the quest for transformational and lasting change.
Date of AwardJul 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorDavid McKee (Supervisor) & Caitlin Donnelly (Supervisor)

Cite this