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.