Trust, accountability and why we need them both

//Trust, accountability and why we need them both

I’ve been thinking a lot about trust in recent months – particularly because it seems a commodity in such short supply. If, my optimistic thinking went, teachers were trusted to do a good job, then they probably would. But, of course, there’s always that nagging concern that some wouldn’t. This got me thinking about why people – and specifically teachers – are trustworthy or not. Is it down to an inherent goodness? Are some people just naturally more dedicated and professional, or could it be that we’re good because of the consequences of not being good?

The conclusion I’ve arrived at is that people are only as good as we expect them to be. Trust may be vital in getting the best out of teachers, but so, it turns out, is accountability.

Superficially, it might look as if accountability processes are contrary to trust.

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 21.45.12Trusting teachers allows them to invent, adapt and excel, whereas accountability constrains and confines our tendency to experiment, and encourages us to play it safe and conceal our mistakes. But where there is no accountability, it’s all too easy to sink to the lowest common denominator.

The trick is, I think, to bend this continuum back on itself so that these pressures are pulling towards rather than against each other.

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 21.45.25

Easy to say, but what might this actually look like in practice? 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.

In my last post I suggested 3 conditions needed for an accountability process to create conditions for teachers to do what’s actually right instead of what merely looks right:

  1. We will be accountable to an audience for our actions.
  2. The audience’s views must be unknown.
  3. The belief that the audience is well-informed and interested in accuracy.

In schools, we’ve become pretty good at meeting condition 1, but lamentable at 2 and 3. To take our previous example of book monitoring, 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.

This process trusts teachers 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.*

The more I think about this, the more certain I become that it would be 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.

*There are, of course, clear parallels to the ways in which Ofsted currently holds (and should hold) schools to account. It seems pretty obvious that someone needs to watch the watchmen.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

2015-05-10T14:46:48+00:00April 29th, 2015|leadership|


  1. Leah @LearntSchool April 29, 2015 at 3:06 pm - Reply

    David, great follow up to your last post. You mentioned in your reply to my last comment that ‘without accountability society devolves into chaos’ and, taking what you’ve said here, I just wanted to add this: It’s obvious that when we have something we like we put systems in place to easily maintain it, to protect from ‘chaos’- of course we do! We do this on an individual, family, community, country levels. This has been done in our schools via accountability. It’s our ‘maintenance system’. Question: What is accountability of teachers and students trying to maintain, now? do we still want to maintain this? are trust and accountability still pointing the same directions? Sure, no one wants chaos, but scale up to global and it’s there! Here’s the thing: structured programmes from age 6-16+ delivered by teachers held accountable to our annual results instils this message: ‘do this now and you’ll be safe in the future’ ‘ignore the pain you see around you and on the news’ ‘the important thing is to get yourself ahead’. Do we really still want this to be the message of education? Are we really still happy playing ‘my island, not yours’? Maybe, just maybe, directing thinking peoples time and energy on fulfilling systems of daily to annual accountability is maintaining something that is no longer helpful? No wonder character education is such a big thing when students don’t understand our system. No wonder it seems like teacher trust is in such short supply.

  2. coxesgo4th April 29, 2015 at 3:48 pm - Reply

    Absolutely on the money, David. After 5 years of blossoming as a teacher under a trusting, if-you’ve-got-an-idea-go-for-it! Head, I suffered 3 years of do-what-you’re-told, we-know-best drudgery in two other schools where my ideas were ignored, my questioning was interpreted as insubordination and the constant robotically moronic scrutiny (eg still looking for ‘progress’ every 20 minutes in lessons even after Ofsted admitted it was nonsense) ground every last ounce of confidence, vigour and vim out of me. Result: I’ve left teaching.

    • Colin Seabrook April 29, 2015 at 7:33 pm - Reply

      excellent article, and that is from a nominated observer.
      For me it’s the same institution just changes in senior management. But the same results!

      Providing we can have checks of some description and a means of rapid intervention when needed, I too would support the loss of this sort of process.

    • teachwell April 30, 2015 at 8:24 am - Reply

      I hear you – I felt the same way except I have experienced that process within the same school!! One manager says go for it, the other (I think jealous/ a bit threatened/ too caught up in the I have to be the best teacher and everyone else is rubbish mindset!!) was the opposite. I too left because I did not want to be split in two!! I think that accountability is important – are you marking your books, are the children actually being taught, are the majority of children making progress over time and if they are not is there a sound reason (i.e. the severely autistic child I once taught was not going to make 2 sublevels progress in a year!!).

      To be honest most senior leaders know this already from what they pick up but the overbearing, bullying, my way or the high way style of management is prevalent in schools. The worst of it comes from people who have never really produced results at all!! Why would one want to teach like them!

  3. Tom April 29, 2015 at 5:10 pm - Reply

    Like this train of thought, looking forward to the next post where you discuss what the best forms of evidence are.

    • David Didau April 29, 2015 at 5:21 pm - Reply

      I’ve written about that several times before 🙂

  4. Debbie Hepplewhite (@debbiehepp) April 29, 2015 at 7:02 pm - Reply

    One thing that appears to be missing in the ‘accountability’ model is an official, professional ‘upwards accountability’ option.

    Those in authority who dish out the guidance, instructions, policies or whatever, cannot be reasonably held to account.

    If the guidance/instructions/methods are not readily doable, or not justifiable to teachers – there will be negative consequences of all sorts of descriptions.

    You already have one example above of a teacher actually leaving the profession following unreasonable demands and a joy-less context.

    You refer to the marking issue. One result of over-demanding regimes for marking that do not take into account the time this takes measured against any apparent advantages, is that teachers may minimise the marking requirement by avoiding work on paper and in books. Or, if on paper, the paper can discretely end up in the bin – and I am personally appalled by the over-use and mis-use of mini whiteboards which, of course, reduces the need for marking but also reduces the evidence of learners’ practice and progress.

    If we had an ‘upwards accountability system’ whereby people were encouraged and allowed to provide their professional views and findings related to guidance/orders/policies/practices pushed ‘downwards’, then we might get a great deal more practical and doable common sense in our school systems.

    In other words, TRUST the teaching profession to be able to REVIEW regimes and to comment professionally on them.

    Now, we have nothing but misery, distrust, frustration – and teachers, and headteachers, leaving the profession precisely because they believe, they perceive – or actually – they DON’T – really have a voice. And all accountability measures and procedures seem to be downwards do they not?

    • teachwell April 30, 2015 at 8:35 am - Reply

      This is such a spot on comment!! The same goes for behaviour management of challenging pupils, dealing with parents, reports.

      Marking just did it for me and while I didn’t resort to less work in the books I was appalled when triple marking was suggested for 8 year olds when there has been no benefit shown from it. The fact that no account was taken of the extra hours and whether this was a good use of teacher time shows how much power SLT have and little accountability as they can always go for the teacher requires improvement/ inadequate route. As one colleague rightly pointed out – if teachers are failing because they are not suited to teaching that is one thing, if they are failing because of the workload then that is a whole different ball game.

      The research on the EEF website states quite clearly that while effective feedback is important it does not suggest a particular amount – i.e. it’s up to the school what is necessary. How this sensible advice has been translated into every piece of work in a book should be quality marked with different coloured pens shows the stupidity of some people in charge. If they can’t interpret a simple sentence then what hope is there?

      The only people who do seem to hold SLT to account are OFSTED but they are not aware of the pressure put on teachers to NOT fill out their questionnaire. Surely there has to be a better way of allowing teachers to feedback – leaving it in the staffroom is a deliberate tactic so that those who take the form and fill it in can be seen.

  5. […] I’ve been thinking a lot about trust in recent months – particularly because it seems a commodity in such short supply. If, my optimistic thinking went, teachers were trusted to do a good job, then they probably would.  […]

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  13. Neil Williams June 10, 2015 at 11:13 pm - Reply

    I wonder if ‘teachers’ should be ‘subjects’?

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  17. […] looking at what is there and asking questions about why it’s there and what it represents. As I’ve argued before, accountability only works if those being held to account are prompted to try to be their best […]

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