Intelligent Accountability

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The history of human growth is at the same time the history of every new idea heralding the approach of a brighter dawn, and the brighter dawn has always been considered illegal, outside of the law. – Emma Goldman

So many teachers I speak to are afraid to make nuanced professional judgements. When I make suggestions on how they could manage workload, organise classroom, speak to students, select curriculum content or plan lessons very often I’m confronted with,”That sounds like a great idea but I wouldn’t be allowed to do it.” Too many school systems have become blunt instruments used to bind rather than support teachers; rewarding compliance, penalising judgement and thought.

When the government issued its Workload Challenge earlier in the year, thousands of teachers got in touch to complain about the burdensome, bureaucratic requirements of data managements, planning and marking. These problems are caused, almost entirely, by poorly thought-out, badly implemented accountability systems.

How on earth have we managed to get to this point?

It’s not good enough to blame school leaders; they are products of the same system, the same culture of fear and compliance. If we’re ever to sculpt a system in which teachers are supported, it needs to be a system in which head teachers enjoy the same benefits. Within the current system, if school leaders allow teachers take risks, accountability falls, with a leaden clang, on the headteacher. We have created a system in which there are inexorable institutional pressures to blame, seek excuses, conceal mistakes and pass the buck. No one can thrive in a system like this.

Although these pressures appear to originate with increasingly draconian governmental oversight, ultimately they’re what we, as a society, have decided is the best way to hold each other to account. Education possibly suffers more than other areas of public service as everyone’s been to school; everyone has met a few feckless teachers in their time and a fair few have been to rubbish schools. We know there are crap schools and teachers out there and it’s frustrating to think these worst case examples get away with it.

One argument is to do away with accountability measures altogether and simply trust teachers to do their jobs well. After all, no one goes into teaching for self-serving, greedy motives. Teachers are, almost by definition, a well-intentioned, caring bunch. Sadly, this is what the philosopher Roger Scruton calls the best case fallacy. Those who wax lyrical on the boundless possibilities offered by an exciting, unfettered future and urge change, progress and the uncritical veneration of the new, ignore both the lessons of the past, the realities of the present and the full range of possibilities offered by the future. As Scruton puts it, “By changing ‘is’ to ‘will be’ we enable the unreal to trump the actual, and worlds without limits to obliterate the constraints we know.” And the constraints offered by accountability systems are important.

The rather uncomfortable truth is that morality stems from accountability. Unless we believe ourselves socially accountable, we try harder to look right than be right; what others think of us is more important that what we think of ourselves. But not all social pressures are equal. If we want to encourage people to want to be right rather than look right we need them to believe

  1. they will be accountable to an audience
  2. the audience’s views must be unknown
  3. the audience is well-informed and interested in accuracy.

If those conditions are met, people tend to do the right thing. Research into self-consciousness has shown that the idea of self-esteem is dodgy at best. People who identify as having high self-esteem actually believe they stand high in the esteem of others; they think well of themselves because others think well of them. In an experiment, participants who identified themselves as possessing high self-esteem saw that sense of self-deteriorate when they read the unflattering rankings of a hidden audience as they spoke about themselves to camera.

As I set out in this post, we need both trust and accountability to bring the best out of teachers. The question we need to be asking is, how can we trust teachers to be good, instead of forcing them into looking good? When we decide we know better than classroom teachers how they ought to teach their classes, we inevitably end up doing something foolish. Instead, we should always ask teachers to talk about the reasons for the decisions they’ve made, and then listen. We should ask teachers what they think needs to be done and what support they need to make these things happen and then hold then to account for doing whatever they’ve said they should do.

Unless we believe those holding us to account are interested in accuracy rather than simply having their preferences met, we tend to become fearful, dishonest and risk averse. If those in authority pre-define what good looks like and hold us to account for meeting a set of standards, we will give the appearance of meeting those standards. This results in two equally undesirable outcomes:

  1. Compliance – some people will just do whatever they are told to do. Some will do it well, others will struggle. They will assume managers know best and try hard to please them.
  2. Pretence – some people will feel they know better and assume managers are foolish or corrupt. They will sometimes give the appearance of playing the game, but will, as far as possible, ignore the accountability process.

Some of those who are successfully compliant will feel pretty good about being able to meet managers’ demands but everyone else will experience a combination of guilt, fear and anger. None of these emotions are particularly useful for helping individuals grow and progress. The bitterest irony though is that even when these accountability systems appear to be successful they promote a lack of curiosity and blind adherence to a set of partially understood principles. We lose the ability to make considered professional judgments and embark on Cargo Cult teaching – following the forms and structures of teaching but without understanding the underpinning theory or science. Managers who prefer uncritical staff reveal their own weakness – you might not like teachers asking awkward questions, but this shows they care and that they are thoughtful.

So what can we do? 

First, as explained above, we need to acknowledge the very real need for accountability, but then we need to consider how we will make these accountability processes intelligent so that teachers feel trusted and encouraged to do their best. Here follow some principles which I feel are worth exploring:

1. Negotiate your ‘non-negotiables’

It seems reasonable that teachers be held to account for carrying out agreed tasks, but who gets to decide that these tasks are worth carrying out? If teachers don’t know why they’re being asked to work 60 hours a week (and worse, if school leaders don’t know either) then surely it’s reasonable to negotiate? Should English teachers have same set of expectations as PE teachers? Should all maths teachers be treated equally? Who says? Unless you’re prepared to negotiate what’s non-negotiable then you’re no better than a thug wielding a cudgel.

Ask teachers what they think – as graduate professionals they really ought to have something to offer. Suggest some ways of working and ask them to think critically about what might not work. Anyone considering asking teachers to change what they do should read Daniel Willingham’s bill of rights for educators and encourage teachers to ask thoughtful, intelligent and awkward questions. If these questions aren’t asked at the outset, it’s hard to avoid the best case fallacy.

2. Don’t treat everyone the same

I hate the misbegotten concept of equality; it is a toxic and pernicious distraction and will undermine all your best efforts. We’re not all the same – we all have different talents, passions and failings. In the one-size-fits-all approach to performance management, we treat everyone according to the lowest common denominator. If some staff don’t mark their books then everyone needs to be scrutinised in the same way. Why? Because that’s fair. Only it’s not fair. It’s patently unfair to treat everyone the same. If some colleagues need support – give it to them. If others merit freedom, then for God’s sake let them have it!

The best approach is one of earned autonomy. There will be times when it’s right and reasonable to remove freedoms and give tight constraints in order to support those who struggle, but does it sound like a good idea to make all staff feel this way? The bottom line is that we are far, far worse at spotting underperformance than we believe.

3. Ask and ye shall get

The biggest mistake we make when holding teachers (or anyone else) to account is telling them what ‘right’ looks like before the process begins. We’re usually at pains to say, this is the best way to mark books, teach lessons, manage behaviour or whatever else we want teachers to do; let me show you how. Then, when we go through a process of quality assurance what we’re actually doing is checking whether the teacher has marked their books, taught their lessons or managed their classes in the way we told them to. This has the advantage of being relatively easy to check:

  1. Teachers were told to use ‘two stars and wish’ to mark their books.
  2. There is/isn’t evidence of ‘two stars and wish’ in this teacher’s books, therefore I am/am not happy.

We rarely stop to think whether there might have been a better way or if the way we have operationalised is actually having the effect we want. A better accountability process might proceed like this:

  1. Teachers were told to mark students’ books in the way they believed would make the most impact.
  2. There is/isn’t evidence of marking therefore I am/am not happy.
  3. There is/isn’t evidence that the marking has had an impact therefore I need/do not need to ask the teacher some follow-up questions.

This process trusts that teachers will use their professional judgement to mark their students’ books in the way they deem most efficient and effective. It acknowledges that the teach might know better than the person holding them to account. It does however still assume that teachers must mark books in order to be a good teacher. Is this actually the case? How do we know? There are certainly some parts of the world where this isn’t an expectation in the same way it is in the UK. An even better kind of accountability process for book monitoring might look like this:

  1. Teachers are expected to cover the curriculum and ensure to the best of their ability that students are prepared for some kind of assessment.
  2. There is/isn’t evidence of marking therefore I need/do not need to ask the teacher some follow-up questions.

Here, teachers are trusted to meet step 1 in the way they deem best. That may or may not include that books are marked, but the teacher who chooses not to mark will be expected to justify the decision they made. If they give a reasoned, intuitively plausible answer then we should wait to see what happens. If they say, Well, I just couldn’t be bothered, then we might need to remove some of the assumption of trust from the process.

At a school I’ve been working in, teachers were told that the school expected a minimum standard of grammatical knowledge. Teachers were asked to self-assess themselves, given a variety of means to address any deficit and told they would be held to account for their choices. Teachers were then left alone and trusted to act as professionals. This seems an eminently fair, solidly sensible way to get what we want.

Doesn’t this sound like a better way to run schools? Teachers would not be tyrannised into operationalising stuff in which they can’t see the point; school leaders would be allowed to act more humanely, and maybe, just maybe, it would result in a surplus model of school improvement in which happier, more autonomous professionals who were genuinely allowed to have a growth mindset approach to teaching.

2016-10-05T20:44:27+00:00October 4th, 2015|Featured, leadership|


  1. 4c3d October 4, 2015 at 9:07 am - Reply

    Entirely agree with all of your points David, especially the issue of compliance. I believe that the majority of those students in school who are “successful” are compliant by nature or parental pressure (brought about through their expectations and aspirations). They are comfortable in the school environment and often thrive. When these students look for a career, like many of us, we find an environment where we are comfortable. So we have compliant students becoming compliant teachers and ultimately perhaps compliant leaders. My responsibility model (featured here: ) shows the impact of compliance you have mentioned here.

    The only thing I would take issue with, and it’s a 3 letter word and that is “why. You say “..we should always ask teachers ‘why?’ ”

    Why is not a good way to ask anyone anything when you want thoughtful or reflective answers because it is accusatory. We go on the defensive straight away. You probably did not mean it in this way. I find terms like “Explain to me the reasons behind your approach.” work best when coaching or getting to the bottom of things.

    I have been teaching long enough to remember a time when I was “left to get on with it” and be accountable for my actions as a “professional”. To be told by the Deputy Head on an occasion when I questioned being scheduled to supervise an examination having taught the students that subject, written the curriculum and the examination “I trust you” made its mark on me. I was being held to the highest of standards – those of my own integrity and of the profession I represented. Maybe I am just being old fashioned 🙂

    • David Didau October 4, 2015 at 10:50 am - Reply

      Ok – I take your point, and as you say, I certainly didn’t mean it that way. I have redrafted to reflect my intended meaning. Is that better?

      • 4c3d October 4, 2015 at 12:49 pm - Reply

        I think your re draft is much clearer and makes the point more powerfully than the original so in my view David “Yes”.

        Could we go further than “ask” teachers though David? Could we “challenge” teachers? This for me this emphasises the culpability and ownership I think we should establish within the profession. I know it can be a case of semantics and you probably think me “picky” already 🙂 but it is something I think at the heart of being a teacher and something we need to champion. For example if asked why I did something that I did not believe in I can say I was told to do it. If I am challenged as to why I did something I did not believe in “being told to do it” does not answer the question. The question becomes an issue about not defending or arguing for my beliefs. A challenge is also a call to action, to do something, and being asked is a passive request that can be turned down.

        I will have to find the book you referred to by Daniel Willingham, sound interesting.

        • David Didau October 4, 2015 at 6:38 pm - Reply

          You are picky! 🙂
          But yes, fair points.
          And the Willingham thing is just a blog post

  2. Caseby's Casebook October 4, 2015 at 9:16 am - Reply

    A timely post as most of us are contemplating performance reviews! I like your clearly stated argument and found it thought provoking. I’d recommend this to anyone working to make accountability empowering for teachers, rather than a constraint. I have not seen the research you cite on self esteem. Is there a reference?

    • David Didau October 4, 2015 at 10:56 am - Reply

      Hi the experiment I cited was referenced in Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful book, The Righteous Mind. The original source is Leary, MR (2005) “Sociometer Theory and the Pursuit of Relational Value: getting to the Root of Self-Esteem” European Review of Social Psychology 16:75-111.

  3. madeupteacher October 4, 2015 at 9:22 am - Reply

    I understand that there is a need for a staffing structure in schools. The larger they are, the more distance between top, non teaching and teaching. Problems begin with initiatives that are implemented because someone told the top- Ofsted like it, someone told the top-they do it at their school, someone at the top noticed that other schools are doing it, someone at the top doesn’t want to be the only school in Christendom not doing it, an executive head decides that’s what his schools will be doing, a trustee or governor has heard from another trustee or governor ……….and it goes on. No one bothers to ask the teachers what they think until the rot sets in and the damage is done. I have a simple solution. Factor in teaching time ( compulsory) for all Heads and SLT. That way, trailing is conducted by those who need to be sure initiatives are effective before telling others to put on the emperors new clothes. And can we please get rid of IMPACT stickers. Those were never for children but were placed strategically in their books so that when Ofsted ( or SLT) looked through them, it saved them the effort of proper scrutiny. Rant over.

    • David Didau October 4, 2015 at 11:51 am - Reply

      Making anything compulsory is rather against the spirit of what I’m arguing for. The simpler is even simpler than you suggest – make staff retention part of the suite of measures against which schools are held to account.

      • madeupteacher October 4, 2015 at 2:20 pm - Reply

        From a blog post by your good self:
        But this brings us to a bit of a thorny issue. As Harry Webb recently wrote, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that those who run schools, though once full-time teachers, have forgotten what it is like to teach a full load.” This being the case, do our school leaders have their eye on the classroom ball enough to really value great teachers? Possibly not.

        • David Didau October 4, 2015 at 6:39 pm - Reply

          Yeah, I take your point. But I still think compulsion isn’t the answer

        • joiningthedebate October 5, 2015 at 3:05 pm - Reply

          Harry Webb was great —
          I have suggested that senior teachers teach a minimum of 25% to keep them close to relality and stop them suggesting things they dont have to impliment. 25% is being generous of course. More than half a timetable and they will start to feel the pain of some of their own initiatives

      • matt October 6, 2015 at 10:46 am - Reply

        Schools measured against staff retention would be an interesting approach. One friend (who is a head) took on a special measures schools and vowed to not lose a single teacher. Two years later and with the same staff the school was “good”. He placed no blame on the teachers and instead nurtured, supported and led. I would imagine the retention statistics for schools deemed to be failing are on the whole pretty poor, although I have no evidence to support that statement?

        • David Didau October 6, 2015 at 10:51 am - Reply

          Would you be able to put me in touch with your friend? I’d love to do an interview.

          • mattnoshermatt October 6, 2015 at 12:54 pm

            Yes, he said he would be interested in chatting. I guess you have my email address, contact me there and I will put you in touch.

          • David Didau October 6, 2015 at 1:04 pm

            Mine is


        • Leah K Stewart October 6, 2015 at 2:19 pm - Reply

          That’s probably the next good step. There is a whole other world of simple we could go to after this, but beginning with upholding the importance of staff well-being (as seen by retention stats) would bring back a much needed focus on people as whole persons, as opposed to merely the producers of results.

        • joiningthedebate October 6, 2015 at 3:08 pm - Reply

          What a fantastic idea.

    • 4c3d October 4, 2015 at 12:51 pm - Reply

      See my “Responsibility Diagram” @madeuoteacher I think it explains your point.

  4. […] by a blog post by @learningspy I thought I would write a list, in order of importance, to define my purpose for […]

  5. Leah K Stewart October 4, 2015 at 10:27 am - Reply

    Yeay David! Yeay! Speaking from a student perspective: teachers please hear this! The moments of genius from my teachers came when they ‘let loose’ doing the thing that scared them to try, because it’s not strictly what they ‘should’ do, but they wanted to, for us. Examples: biology teacher gave us an actual scientific paper and got excited talking about the research, English teacher revealed her humanness when she came into a lesson late with tears in her eyes from a song she’d just heard on the radio, PE teacher did her incredible Diabolo display, language teacher performed her own puppet shows and we (13-16 year olds) talked with the foreign puppets!, primary headteacher took our class and read us his own story he’d got published in readers digest… and on and on. These are moment of magic for students because they give us permission to be ourselves too. Thinking about it, we didn’t react to these moments in very positive or encouraging ways for the teachers (which may explain why they’re rare enough to not be significant yet) because it’s just so different to the rest of what we’re led to do. The more teachers follow the book when they really want to do something else for us instead (and we can tell when this is happening – it’s hard to watch), the more we’ll learn that work/life is ‘just like that’ …we need to do what the more powerful ask, we are not important enough or good enough to make any valid point and must therefore ignore the inner turmoil we have, and deserve to have, for being unworthy.

  6. Mr P October 4, 2015 at 7:05 pm - Reply

    I very much enjoyed reading this article and I think perhaps it’s because it opened my eyes to how lucky I am. In my school the SLT give us a lot of freedom in how we go about doing our jobs. When I recently showed my Assistant Head how I marked my books, (very much in the spirit of how you would I imagine), he thought it was great and suggested I showed everyone else during the next inset day.

    When we were given a ‘suggested model’ on how we could move forward post-NC levels I hated it, it was overly prescriptive, too onerous and labelled students just as badly and frequently as the old system. I developed a system without levels, but instead rag rated how well students had progressed towards yearly objectives. Students would simply be given feedback on how they could make progress, never given levels on work. Again, it was given the go ahead.

    I’ve just applied for a promotion at another school. I hope they’re as flexible there…

    • David Didau October 4, 2015 at 7:09 pm - Reply

      Thanks for this – good to know that there are great leaders out there. Be very careful in applying to another school – ask some pointed questions. And good luck

  7. joiningthedebate October 5, 2015 at 3:00 pm - Reply

    great article – yes let the majority of conscientious teachers just get on marking ‘as much as they can as often as they can’
    Book trawls etc never seem to catch the mavericks (students names are published and they are one step ahead making sure they mark a book just before it is submitted to the random trawl). Congratulations (if that’s the right word) David for getting onto the marking group. I intend to send ‘My Marking Policy’ in for consideration – making the point that what works for me wont necessarily suit others etc

  8. […] Education is as hierarchical as it gets. Heads cower beneath the fiery eye of Ofsted and the DfE; teachers labour under the burden of this fear; students get taught to pass exams rather than taught the breadth and beauty offered by subject disciplines. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it won’t be easy to change because there’s so much vested interest in the status quo. The answer, my friend is, I’m fairly sure, Intelligent Accountability. […]

  9. Brett Gilland October 5, 2015 at 10:44 pm - Reply

    I agree with the vast majority of what is written here, but this bit left me shaking my head:

    “The rather uncomfortable truth is that morality stems from accountability. Unless we believe ourselves socially accountable, we try harder to look right than be right…”

    The first sentence is an unsupported assertion that cuts against much of what you are arguing for. It also seems to function for a different version of the term ‘morality’ than I am familiar with.

    The second sentence is almost perfectly self-refuting. When we believe ourselves socially accountable, we often focus on looking right instead of being right. Your proposed necessities for getting people to act right relies on that fact. By using anonymous informed observers, those who are trying to look right must, in fact, act right. I can’t say it is the best way to get people to act right, but I believe it could possibly be effective. Just don’t pretend like you have actually caused anyone to act right, when all you have done is raise the stakes in the looking right game. (I find myself of the belief that we can actually increase the odds of people acting right without introducing the ‘looking right’ panopticon as a necessity.)

    The sad thing is, when I read those two sentences, I find myself reading a justification for damned near everything you (and I) hate about current management policies. We have the assumption that people won’t do well unless watched. We have the drive for accountability. We assume negative intentions and devalue professionalism. Maybe if we could get rid of those two sentences, we might have better luck overturning top-down compliance based managing, as you seem to want to do.

    • David Didau October 6, 2015 at 7:57 am - Reply

      Hi Brett – I can see I haven’t explained myself as clearly as I needed to. Leary’s theories about morality and social pressure are interesting and I was wrong to gloss over the substance. Essentially, 99% of accountability at work in schools at the moment is forcing teachers to respond to ticklists and cover their backs by ‘looking good’. I’m arguing for a redefinition of accountability systems to encourage people to do what they believe is best by holding them to account for being a thoughtful​, discerning professional. I stand by those 2 sentences but will look to write a further post explaining further why.

      Feedback appreciated.

  10. […] is the third in a series of posts about what I’m calling Intelligent Accountability. In the second post, I started to explore what education might learn from the way the aviation […]

  11. […] my first post on Intelligent Accountability I suggested we shouldn’t treat all teachers, or all schools, the same. This is advice that […]

  12. […] October Intelligent Accountability – a manifesto for improving the ways in which teachers are held accountable in an attempt […]

  13. […] sufficently humble you’ll know hard this is to do well and you will have developed intelligent accountability systems. A determination not to avoid difficult conversations and a willingness to be disliked is […]

  14. […] you’ll know hard this is to do well and you will have developed intelligent accountability systems. A determination not to avoid difficult conversations and a willingness to be disliked is […]

  15. […] teach and assess as they think is appropriate.” As long as this trust is complemented with intelligent accountability systems, all should be […]

  16. […] Aristotle saw any form of extremism as unhealthy and held up the golden mean – the desirable middle between excess and deficiency – as chief amongst virtues. You can have two much of a good thing. Too much of courage results in recklessness, an excess of accountability erodes trust. […]

  17. […] If we tell teachers what good looks like we undermine their expertise. Rather than doing what they genuinely believe is in their students’ best interests, they’ll simply do what you tell them to do. Instead what we should aim for is intelligent accountability. […]

  18. […] If your outcomes are consistently good, if you’re seen to play a full and active role in promoting the values of the school and supporting colleagues then you should be trusted to do what you think is best for your students rather than simply tick off a list of ‘non-negotiables’. I call this Intelligent Accountability. […]

  19. […] So many teachers I speak to are afraid to make nuanced professional judgements. When I make suggestions on how they could manage workload, organise classroom, speak to students, select curriculum content or plan lessons very often I’m confronted with,”That sounds like a great idea but I wouldn’t be allowed to do it.” Too many school systems have become blunt instruments used to bind rather than support teachers; rewarding compliance, penalising judgement and thought.  […]

  20. […] we need both trust and accountability to bring the best out of teachers  […]

  21. […] hailed as ‘tough’ and having ‘a sense of pace’. Instead, what we need is intelligent accountability where accountability is balanced with trust and autonomy is earned. Nash is right that the clocking […]

  22. […] bad ones. A good leader creates the circumstances for teachers and students to flourish through intelligent accountability. This is no easy trick and it is possibly why truly excellent schools are the […]

  23. A measurement checklist – David Didau February 22, 2019 at 10:54 am - Reply

    […] Intelligent Accountability […]

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