I’ve got the power…

The measure of a man (or woman) is what he (or she) does with power. (Plato)

In 1959, French and Raven described five bases of power:

  1. Legitimate – This comes from the belief that a person has the formal right to make demands, and to expect others to be compliant and obedient.
  2. Reward – This results from one person’s ability to compensate another for compliance.
  3. Expert – This is based on a person’s high levels of skill and knowledge.
  4. Referent – This is the result of a person’s perceived attractiveness, worthiness and right to others’ respect.
  5. Coercive – This comes from the belief that a person can punish others for noncompliance.

Six years later, Raven added an extra power base:

  1. Informational – This results from a person’s ability to control the information that others need to accomplish something.

I think this one interesting way to examine sources of power within schools. Having been on the receiving end of a particularly patronising whole staff bollocking about deadlines this morning, it reminded me that ideas about power and hierarchies within school have been floating round my head for quite some time, without necessarily really crystallising, except in in the occasional sharp expletive, expressing frustration rather than any well thought out analysis of the places power resides in schools, and how legitimate we consider the power base to be. Teachers wield power in the classroom (well hopefully) in order to ensure students learn, and beyond that, teachers wield power over other teachers in various ways and for various reasons. The SLT power base comes from its legitimacy. In psychology we study reasons for obedience and how much more like we are to obey when authority is legitimate. To increase legitimacy you can dress for it, and SLT certainly do suit it up. Admittedly I look more like I picked up clothes from the floor in the dark and then forced myself through a hedge backwards (as the saying goes). But I don’t do what SLT asks because of fancy suiting. I do it (usually) because their authority is legitimate. But there are limits to this. Because I also have power. I have the power of the expert. Oh yes I do. I am an experienced, knowledgeable teacher. I know more about my subjects than any member of SLT, and I’d hazard a guess that I know as much as, if not more, about pedagogy- certainly the psychology of learning and memory. So SLT do not have the power to tell me how to teach, nor how to plan my lessons. We can discuss pedagogy and teaching strategies, but there is no legitimate authority here; we discuss as equals, or in some cases the power structure is reversed because I am the expert, not SLT. This is where the problem often lies in the assumption of power. From the position of power, the position of expert is often assumed, even when clearly undeserved. And this creates problems in how professionals within a school relate to each other. Assuming that you power remains legitimate independent of context is foolish. I understand that the legitimacy of my power over students diminishes rapidly as they leave the school grounds because it is partly conferred by my location and the role I play within it. The power of a member of the police force to tell me what to do is usually legitimised by uniform; out of it and it is just some stranger shouting at me. SLT must recognise that the legitimacy of their power becomes questionable dependent on context; if not then they forge relationships of resentment or learned helplessness- neither of which are good things.

There is of course one way that SLT can maintain a sense of legitimate power according to the above definitions- they can have referent power. They can engender respect and be considered worthy of it; they can also maintain their expertise. It’s a sad thing to say that referent power is sadly lacking when you stand up and shout at your colleagues, at experts in their field, and expect that your authority remains legitimate without recognising you lack any kind of referent power.


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