Rethinking Accountability: Part 1

This is the first of a series of five blog posts about the issue of accountability with some suggestions as to how we can create healthier accountability for schools and teachers. Much of the content I am sharing in these posts is taken from my book, Wholesome Leadership. Other resources have either been created kindly by Oliver Caviglioli or are those which have been developed by the leadership team at Simon de Senlis Primary School or within Northampton Primary Academy Trust.

Planned posts in this series…

Part 1 – Introduction (you’re reading this)

Part 2 – A culture of healthy accountability

Part 3 – School improvement and monitoring processes

Part 4 – Assessing like a consultant doctor

Part 5 – Managing external accountability sensibly

Summary of posts…

If you don’t have time to read the whole of this series, I’ve attempted to summarise it in the following 6 bullet points:

  • School accountability is in a mess – both at a national level and within schools. A culture of hyper-accountability and an obsession with OFSTED has led to damaging practices and policies across schools in England. The consequences of this unhealthy accountability are serious and have led to many teachers leaving the profession or becoming demotivated about the job they’re in.
  • In too many cases, school leadership has become primarily about monitoring, consistency and generic teaching and learning approaches which create an impression of school improvement for an external audience, rather than focusing on the more fundamental areas of school improvement such as behaviour, curriculum and developing better in-service training for teachers.
  • Often, teachers and school leaders are quick to blame OFSTED and the government for things that are wrong with accountability. In fact, lots (most?) of the damaging processes and approaches are within a school’s gift to change for the better. Schools can do more to rethink their approaches to monitoring, staff development and evaluation (I will share some that we have developed in schools I’ve worked in that you are free to use, adapt, suggest improvement or ignore).
  • The starting point for getting accountability right is a school’s culture.  I think it’s essential for schools to  create a culture of ‘High Challenge and Low Threat’ (to borrow Mary Myatt’s phrase) where staff are aspirational and highly motivated to improve within a positive and supportive environment.
  • It is impossible to ‘fix’ accountability without first addressing assessment processes and practices which are still varied and problematic in schools and across the system. By rethinking assessment more intelligently (assessing like a consultant doctor), we can put assessment in its helpful and rightful place rather than it being something driven primarily by accountability. As Dylan Wiliam said, ‘Assessment is a good servant but a terrible master’.
  • External audits and inspection will always remain a part of school life. As leaders, part of our job is to not allow these processes to divert limited time and resources away from proper, sustainable school improvement. We should avoid using ‘Ofsted’ as a threat or lever to get people to do things and make sure that any external inspection or audit is not a bruising process for staff.

Rethinking Accountability

I should start by saying that I believe it is important that schools and teachers are properly and thoroughly held to account for our role in education. Children only get one chance to go to school and the quality of their education has an impact on the rest of their lives. I don’t think anyone would dispute that we must have high expectations and standards of what takes place in the classroom every day. Although teachers are mostly well-motivated people who want to do the best job they can, teaching is no different from any other walk of life in that, without regular and effective monitoring, things can slide and people can stop doing some of the things that they are supposed to do. It is important that we have checks and balances in the system, and I have always been happy to be held to account in a thorough and systematic way for my work.

But accountability has gone wrong in our system: processes are often clumsy and the stakes are too high. Rather than a ‘healthy pressure’ that keeps schools on their toes and increases motivation, the system is full of fear and discussion about ‘what Ofsted is looking for’. This has led to the introduction of clunky processes, primarily as evidence-gathering exercises for external accountability, which take up precious resources that would be better directed in the classroom. A thirst for evidence of improvement rather than actual improvement has added to workload pressures and disillusioned many; this in turn has added to the recruitment and retention challenges across our schools. Does it  have to be this way?

Dad

Like most sons, I have spent many hours of my life arguing with my dad about a great number of things.

Dad was a secondary music teacher in comprehensive schools for 42 years and saw a lot of change over this time. From his early pre-national curriculum days of cane-wielding housemasters, spectacular school musicals and annual trips to France conducting his 40-piece orchestra, he has spent the last 15 years fighting against the slide of music to the sidelines of the curriculum and continually dodging Ofsted and accountability bullets.

Dad: now enjoying semi-retirement teaching A-Level and GCSE music as and where required around Northants…

Dad was, and still is, a brilliant teacher – primarily due to his expertise and love of music. We argue about different things. Dad will say that the introduction of the national curriculum was where everything started to go wrong, and that it was so much better in the days when people who really knew their subjects could decide what to teach and when; I will argue that without some kind of agreed body of knowledge, the ‘what’ of education would be left to the whims and fancies of each teacher. He will argue that Ofsted is the disease of education and responsible for stifling teachers across the country; I will counter by pointing out that without the checks and balances of a regulatory body, some schools would slip into lazy practices and let down generations of kids, including his grandchildren. Dad will say something about the England team not having enough Spurs players; I will remind him that he knows nothing about football.

Our conversations often play out like this:

Me: Alright, Dad?

Dad: Hi, Tom.

Me: How’s your day?

Dad: Kids were fine – it’s the other stuff. More pointless meetings about data and marking policies. Learning walks happening later this week from middle managers – they’ve gone back to calling them ‘teaching leaders’ again now, rather than ‘learning leaders’. Apparently we’re not all writing our objectives on the board, so we’ve got to make sure that everyone’s got them up as part of our consistency policy.

Me: (Instinctively defensive of the middle managers who have tried to get my Dad to write a WILF on his board) But surely you see that there’s some sense in all that, Dad? I mean, trying to make sure that everyone’s clear about what they are teaching isn’t a bad thing, is it?

Dad: It might be right in maths or English, Tom; but they want to see me doing it in bloody music! I’m supposed to get the kids to write in books in music just so I can show that I’m doing some marking. I even staged a quiz this week rather than working on composition, just so there could be something in the books for a scrutiny that’s coming up.

Me: OK, I agree that’s total nonsense. But you do have to have some systems in place that people stick to. It can’t just be a free-for-all, right? People need to check that teachers are doing the things they should.

Dad: It’s rubbish, Tom, and everyone knows it. They should abolish Ofsted and the government, and just let good teachers get on with it. And while we’re at it, they should dissolve the monarchy too.

Me: Drink?

And so the conversations continue: Dad wishing for freedom just to get on and teach, and lambasting any form of standardisation or accountability; and me standing up for (often questionable) managerial processes that might keep the occasional mediocre teacher in line.

Dad retired from his position as assistant head of a large comprehensive secondary school ten years ago to return to his first love of teaching music. When I watch him conduct orchestras and choirs across the county with his boundless energy, and I meet many of the adults who still play in his groups perhaps 25 years after they left school, it reminds me of the bigger picture that his life as a ‘teacher’ has played in the world.

And it makes me cross to think of him spending hours after school and at lunchtimes wrapped up in meetings about data or learning walk feedback when he could have been running choirs or rehearsing soloists for shows. It makes me sad that he spends Sunday mornings writing lesson plans that no one (including him) will ever read. It makes me both laugh and despair at the stories of how little time he would spend on national curriculum level assessments at Key Stage 3 – his logic was that whatever he put down, the data manager would soon come down and tell him what to change it to anyway.

Dad was right: the unintended consequences of accountability have spread like a disease across our schools.

Does it really have to be this way?

Dad (front right) with the Fellaini haircut as a young teacher in his 20s,1981.

Towards healthier accountability

Much time and energy are spent discussing where the problems of accountability come from and who is to blame, so I won’t labour this further here. Instead, I will try and focus on what we can do as school leaders to improve things and the responsibility we have not to simply replicate crude and unhealthy external processes in our own settings.

At this stage, I would like to propose four important tasks for leaders to create healthier accountability schools in our schools which will form the basis of the following posts:

  1. Take the fear out of the challenge, creating the right conditions in our school for healthy accountability.
  2. Develop effective processes for school improvement, monitoring & evaluation that are used consistently as part of an ongoing cycle of improvement.
  3. Think really carefully about the purpose and processes of assessment and improve both its use and the quality of conversations that surround it.
  4. Manage external accountability with confidence, staying in control of inspections and audits and not allowing them to influence school improvement negatively.

I hope you’ve found this first post interesting. If you have a few minutes, why not share your experiences of accountability in the comments box below?

  • How has accountability changed in your school over the last few years?
  • Would you describe accountability as ‘healthy’ in your school? Why or why not?
  • What would you change about accountability processes if you could?

Thanks for reading

TR