Rethinking Accountability Part 2: Taking the fear out of the challenge

This is the second in a series of five posts about the issue of accountability in schools with some thoughts on 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.

Rethinking Accountability

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – A culture of healthy accountability (you’re reading this now)

Part 3 – School improvement and monitoring processes

Part 4 – Assessing like a consultant doctor

Part 5 – Managing external accountability

In the first post, I laid out the following four key four challenges for us as school leaders to focus on in schools in pursuit of a healthier accountability system which I believe is at the heart of making teaching a more effective and sustainable profession.

  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.

This post focuses on the first challenge: creating the right culture in our school and a healthier relationship with accountability.

Taking the fear out of the challenge

It is almost impossible to implement any improvements to accountability processes without first establishing the right culture and ethos in a school. Any attempts to improve processes such as lesson observations or appraisal meetings are undermined in a culture built on fear, coercion or transactional ‘carrot and stick’ consequences.

Over the years, I have seen a real range of staff cultures in schools – from the most diligent and professional, where staff seem to work together like poetry in motion, taking any challenge in their stride, to the most unprofessional and toxic cultures where personal relationships take over and get in the way. At its worst, an unhealthy culture can result in staff being so preoccupied with adult issues that these take precedence over the children.

Creating an optimum school culture is at the heart of Mary Myatt’s excellent book, High Challenge, Low Threat. In this, she writes: ‘Top leaders create the conditions where critical guidance is not only accepted, it is expected.’ Accountability processes within a culture where the threat is removed from the challenge can be highly effective, creating the right sense of urgency among staff and helping to drive improvement within a school.

Built on this concept of ‘high challenge, low threat’, the below model I have developed within Wholesome Leadership demonstrates how this balance might manifest itself within the culture of a school.

The Challenge & Fear Matrix (Wholesome Leadership) built on the ideas of Mary Myatt’s ‘High Challenge; Low Threat’.

Lazy culture (low challenge/low threat): In these schools, expectations and performance are not high enough, yet relationships may appear positive. Leaders are likely to be too familiar and friendly with staff, and find it difficult to see the need for any change. There may be some surface-level ‘nice things’ happening, but overall self-evaluation is likely to be over-generous and difficult decisions are avoided. There is unlikely to be much consistency of effective teaching approaches other than lip service. Standards and staff turnover may be low.

Toxic culture (low challenge/high threat): Here, leaders may be trying to bring about change or insisting on things happening, but there are no high professional expectations or clarity on what excellence looks like. Leaders probably don’t walk the talk and instead use carrot and stick methods of management to try to motivate staff. Standards are likely to be low. Staff turnover may be high, but not necessarily, as sometimes people become ‘normalised’ to these conditions.

Anxiety culture (high challenge/high threat): In these schools, a high demand for performance exists, but is driven through threats of Ofsted, accountability and carrot and stick approaches in an ‘or else’ culture. Teamwork is unlikely to be strong and conflict is the norm, with individuals often competing against each other in order to hit individual goals and targets. Improvements and standards in the school may improve, but are unlikely to lead to long-term success. Workload is often high. Staff turnover may be high as teachers stay for a few years and then cannot sustain this way of working, although many stay because it might be perceived as a ‘good’ school.

Improving culture (high challenge/low threat): A combination of high expectation for performance and improvement within a supportive and professional environment is the winning formula that takes the fear out of the challenge. In these schools, staff don’t ‘settle’ or rest on their laurels, and improvement happens in a collegiate manner. Accountability processes are transparent and this helps to motivate individuals. Staff turnover is likely to be average, as staff generally move on to promoted posts or to progress their careers.


What is the level of challenge and threat in your school?

What people or processes contribute to this?

What small changes could be made to find the right level of challenge without fear within your school?

Beyond  Compliance and Consistency 

When considering the levels of threat and challenge in a school, it’s important also to look at how these different cultures come to be.  I believe the most significant factors are the behaviours of leaders and, in particular, the tactics and levers they use to try and influence or control others.

Whatever it is that we lead on in school, it is important to get buy-in from others. Whether it’s a new approach to behaviour, a change to break-time supervision or a revised marking policy, we all want people to go along with the plan and do what they are supposed to. Who wouldn’t?

But this drive towards common approaches in schools has led to the rise of ‘Consistency’ being seen as the holy grail where in reality, successful schools are so much more than that. An over-focus on consistency and conformity (often driven by a perception of what Ofsted is looking for) often leads to a culture of compliance, where people duly carry out processes without really understanding why.

A crude drive for compliance – often in the form of checklists or ‘non-negotiables’ documents – can reduce opportunities for staff to think intelligently and prevent professional growth. Consistency for the sake of consistency is not the answer. Of course, some minimum expectations in a school are required, usually to do with behaviour and safeguarding; but in a profession such as teaching, where approaches are nuanced depending on the subject or age group which is being taught, the culture must allow for the expertise within the school to be applied with some freedom and sense of professional trust. Without this, managerialism can take over, as Martin Robinson captures brilliantly (and tragically) in the following blog post, entitled ‘The 51-year Lesson Plan’.

Most of us can point to examples of initiatives or processes in the past that we did ‘for Ofsted’ or ‘for the SLT’, knowing that they were pointless. It depends on the culture and ethos of the school whether staff feel they can question these and suggest alternatives, or whether they simply tick the boxes publicly and then get on and do what they think is right when no one is watching.

From Compliance to Commitment and Creativity

Stephen Covey offers us the following levels of buy-in, describing different degrees of commitment that we might see from staff:

      1. rebel or quit
      2. malicious obedience
      3. willing compliance
      4. cheerful cooperation
      5. heartfelt commitment
      6. creative excitement

Clearly, one of our most important jobs here is to ensure that we can build higher levels of commitment among staff to our school’s mission and strategy. If staff bring a heartfelt commitment or creative excitement to their work, the job of leading becomes much easier and any approach or initiative is likely to be more successful. One initial challenge is that it can be difficult to work out exactly where different people’s commitment sits on this scale. Those at the two extremes are fairly easy to spot: the rebels tend to make themselves known quite quickly and those with creative excitement are often keen to share their ideas with you. But the middle ground is a place where people generally do what is asked of them, without fuss or opposition, even though their hearts may not really be in it.

Question: Take a minute to reflect on some of the key staff you work with and consider their level of commitment. Is this level of commitment constant or does it change depending on what policy or initiative you are thinking about, or even perhaps on who is leading it?

I find this exercise interesting and it is good to talk through with others in your school to see how opinions differ. Sometimes we become concerned by those staff who offer initial resistance and vocal challenge to initiatives – particularly in situations such as staff meetings. But in my experience, it is often the same people who offer initial challenge and resistance that become the greatest advocates in the long run. The process of challenge and questioning allows for a better discussion and leads to reasoning things through. In fact, if there are no difficult questions, it can be a sign that staff are sitting more around the ‘willing compliance’ or ‘cheerful cooperation’ stage of commitment, where they will go along with the ideas without resistance, but without the full commitment that is so important in high-performing schools and organisations. We can think of these different levels of commitment in four stages (ignoring the rebels or the quitters):

      1. Coercion: People are forced to do things.
      2. Compliance: People do what they are told to.
      3. Commitment: People believe in what they are doing.
      4. Creative excitement: People believe in what they are doing, have agency to contribute to school improvements and are innovative in their approaches.
Four Levels of Commitment (Wholesome Leadership). To create a culture of creative excitement, schools have to move on from cultures of coercion and compliance…

So what?

In order to create the right cultures where staff feel wholeheartedly committed and have creative excitement for their work, leaders have to do more than just talk or create PowerPoint slides about culture; they have to display the right behaviours, processes and actions – deliberately and consistently.

Within Wholesome Leadership, I explore some of these actions and behaviours in more depth through the following four areas, termed the ‘Four planks of school culture’.

  • healthy relationships
  • disciplined thought and action
  • teacher agency and innovation
  • solution-focused thinking
The four planks of school culture (Wholesome Leadership)

Whilst there isn’t room here to unpick these in more detail, I’ve summarised ten steps from these below.

Ten steps towards a great school culture…

    1. Build trust over time through small but important actions, such as doing what you say you will and never criticising someone who isn’t there.
    2. Over-communicate the same important messages to help make sure that everyone hears the main things.
    3. Accept others and the strengths and weaknesses they bring to the team.
    4. Manage conflict well with each other. Make sure that differences of opinions can be explored professionally and without defensive behaviour or judgement.
    5. Avoid arguments as a leader, as you will never win. As Franklin said, ‘A man convinced against his will/is of the same opinion still.’
    6. Develop disciplined thought and action among the staff. A culture of discipline removes the need for time-heavy monitoring processes that breed compliance rather than commitment.
    7. Allow teacher agency so that professionals feel empowered to unleash their knowledge and expertise in the classroom in a supported environment.
    8. Encourage innovation that is carefully thought through and research based. Value new ideas from across the team.
    9. Remain solution focused and ‘default positive’. See the many challenges that come your way as opportunities to grow through.
    10. Chop wood, carry water. Remain connected to the core purpose of the school through simple but important jobs, no matter how high you climb or how impressive your job title.

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

  • What is the level of teacher agency in your school?
  • Would you describe the culture in your school as one of coercion, compliance, commitment or creative excitement?
  • Thinking through the lens of High Challenge and Low Threat, what are the levels of challenge and threat as a teacher in your school? Where would you pitch your school culture on the HCLT matrix (Lazy, Toxic, Anxiety, Improve)

Thanks for reading.


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