Just as modern mass production requires the standardization of commodities, so the social process requires standardization of man, and this standardization is called equality.

Erich Fromm

In my first post on Intelligent Accountability I suggested we shouldn’t treat all teachers, or all schools, the same. This is advice that doesn’t just apply to education.

In the interests of egalitarianism, we might suggest mothers and fathers should be allowed to take the same amount of parental leave after the birth of a child. At first glance, this might even seem fair, but it doesn’t take much to see that women go through far more before, during and after childbirth; it’s clearly fairer for them to have a longer leave of absence. The faulty logic which privileges equality over fairness would do away with wheelchair access, subtitles, and guide dogs for the blind. Why should blind people get a dog if we can’t we all have one? Because that would unfair.

In Who’s the Fairest of Them All? right-wing economist Steve Moore argues that social just is not the preserve of the left. While of course economic policy needs to “help expand opportunities and raise the earnings of those stuck at the bottom”, the welfare state might not be the best way of going about this. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Moore believes economic growth best advances opportunity and prosperity for the poor and middle class. He says, “the free enterprise system is the on-ramp to economic progress and rising incomes….[T]he poor are always and everywhere better off in economically free countries than in nations that are not free.  So, in other words, if we judge society by how well it serves the poor, then free enterprise is far and away the greatest anti-poverty program known to man.” Well-intentioned social policies that attempt to place equality before fairness end up perpetuating the very conditions they aim to solve. Why might this be?

Many people believe differential pay causes resentment and envy within the workforce and ultimately lowers performance. If you work in a supermarket, everyone at the same grade gets paid the same regardless of their talents. This paper argues that in actual fact “the use of equal wages elicits substantially lower efforts” from workers.Hard working employees are infuriated at seeing their efforts go unrecognised and unrewarded. If everyone is paid equally despite different experiences, efforts and expertise, everyone slacks off. Something similar happens in education.

Daniel Pink argues convincingly in Drive that financial incentives don’t really work when we’re performing complex tasks like teaching. Teachers are much more likely to be motivated by autonomy, purpose and mastery. In the one-size-fits-all approach to performance management, everyone is treated according the lowest common denominator. If some staff don’t mark their books then, in the interests of equality, everyone is scrutinised in the same way. But treating everyone the same isn’t fair. If some colleagues need support – give it to them. If others merit freedom, then for God’s sake let them have it! There will be times when it’s right and reasonable to remove freedoms and impose tighter constraints, but when all staff are treated this way, everyone is less motivated.

Ofsted has understood this principle for a while. If a school is judged good, it is treated differently to a school judged to be underperforming. We might quibble about whether these judgments are reliable, but the idea that schools should be treated according to their needs is well-established.

So, how might this work in practice? Despite the fact that it’s much harder to identify good teachers than we tend to believe, very headteacher I’ve ever spoken to has a pretty good idea who their most hard working, trustworthy teachers are. They know who needs to be supported and who can be trusted to think critically and follow the spirit rather than the letter of a policy. Now, let’s imagine we are planning a new marking policy. Although there are many excellent reasons for marking we’re aware that there’s no real research on the best way to mark so being overly prescriptive might stymie the efforts of the most effective teachers. The least experienced teachers will need some structure to prevent them going astray, but, like all scaffolding, the aim should be to remove this structure as it becomes unnecessary. With this in mind, we announce our marking policy to all staff. We make it clear that the point of marking is to support students engaging with high-quality content to their best of their ability and ask teacher to self-identify how they want to be held to account from the following options:

  1. No structure needed. Students’ books to be reviewed after a two-week period and if all is well, once per term thereafter. If there are concerns then staff member will move to option 2.
  2. Some guidance and support needed. Students’ books to be reviewed once every two weeks. If after a term all is well, staff member will be given the option to move to option 1. If there are concerns, staff member will move to option 3.
  3. Clear guidance and regular support needed.Students’ books reviewed weekly by line manager. If after a term all is well, staff member will be given the option to move to option 2. If there are concerns, staff member’s performance to be reviewed by headteacher.

Everyone can choose to be in Option 1, but you have to earn the right to stay there.

Now, of course, for this system to work we need to understand the principles of Intelligent Accountability, but this being the case, might this not be a more effective way to hold teachers accountable? As Aristotle said, “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.”