A roundtable event I was invited to recently included a number of people working at the bitter end of school accountability. The discussion was, not surprisingly, well informed and thoughtful but most valuable of all in the world of education, entirely frank.
Afterwards, I couldn’t help but reflect on what it means as a teacher not to be told you are accountable, but to feel accountable.
One of the most obvious but least honest ways in which schools have changed in recent decades is the way they have adopted business practices and processes. It’s largely that which has driven the school accountability agenda.
If businesses routinely manage and measure their performance (I imagine some short-trousered special adviser's thinking went), why can’t schools? That led to leadership courses built around material cut and pasted from US business manuals and hundreds of senior staff conned into thinking they were taught how the commercial world really operates.
Is it any wonder that there is currently so much confusion and incoherence about who is managing whom, and why, across the entire system?
In a well-run business, you feel accountable for the things the business tells you you’re accountable for because they are discussed and crucially agreed with you. They may also be spelt out in 6ft-tall, pink and green flashing neon lights, before being written down somewhere you can regularly revisit, just in case you get distracted. Sensible employees know them off by heart.
Let's start again on accountability
So, what if we went back to a blank sheet of paper about teachers and accountability? What if, instead of trying to mimic the complex commercial world so few in the sector really know much about, we thought instead about accountability from a teacher’s perspective?
To borrow a strategy that is bread and butter to real business – crude marketing – what if we “flipped” accountability?
The first thing I realised was that I could only do this from a secondary teacher’s perspective.
One of the most damaging features of the educational organisations urging change across the sector is the way they conflate primary and secondary teaching. It’s indicative of genuine, not willful, ignorance. They really don’t understand how different the two roles are, how profoundly your subject expertise as a secondary teacher underpins the quality of your work.
With the exception of NQTs and trainees, secondary school teachers start each year with a set number of classes to teach, containing a mixture of children, some they may have taught before and know well, others entirely unknown quantities, in every sense. This is the mundane, annual reality of the job.
Provided you work in a functioning school, most of the children you teach will progress and achieve at a predictable rate and level. They will respond to being taught well: by learning well. However, at one end of the bell curve and in every single class there will be some children who, for multiple reasons, will struggle and be at real risk of underperforming. At the other, there will be some who might achieve remarkable things given skilful encouragement, support and expert subject guidance.
It’s my belief that it’s those children, the ones at each end, who really represent for teachers what it feels like to be accountable. Teachers know that what they decide to do every lesson can impact disproportionately on both ends of the bell curve. Labelling this professional sensitivity “differentiation” does little to mitigate the risk, which is how a real business would articulate the problem.
Teachers also know that, provided they are given a healthy whole-school culture to work within, the majority of those they teach will learn, make choices for themselves and succeed within the grade boundaries our high-stakes exam system restricts them to. You can never out-teach a system designed to pass some and fail others.
This is why successful schools devote generous staff time to sitting down and discussing children’s performance and behaviour in detail, not in snatched, poorly attended, after-school meetings held in isolated faculty offices, or cobbled together round coffee tables in the staffroom. These are in formal, whole-staff meetings where everyone who has anything to do with that child has the opportunity to contribute.
When schools do that, the school, as a whole, responds to those children’s needs and the individual teacher knows they are part of a concerted effort to do all that can be done for the individual: however ill, awkward, lazy, troubled, truculent or scintillatingly brilliant they may be. And anyone who is just itching to deny any one of those conditions may apply – should be doing another job.
So, instead of working from the DfE down, through one stodgy layer of management after another in multi-academy trusts or local authorities, each in turn forcing teachers to derive data which has little to do with those they teach and everything to do with the insecurities and personal career stratagems of those managing them, why not have those managers agree with individual teachers at the first half term of every academic year credible but ambitious goals for the minority of children for whom they feel most accountable?
Where managers can convincingly demonstrate that an individual teacher is not up to the routine job of teaching well, so that the majority of children learn well, then, as in any decent business, it should be a matter for HR staff (where they exist) and training. In some cases, it may mean necessary but less positive measures.
To make teachers accountable wholesale for the termly progress and exam results of all the children they teach, and then force them to derive data to illustrate this, is not just incompatible with the mundane reality of the job, it is, of course, what any well-run business would regard as a perverse incentive.
While doing so might provide fodder for education correspondents and people like me, who are kept busy reporting all the various, unwelcome outcomes, it does nothing to improve the working lives of teachers, or more significantly for those still in short trousers but who like to believe they are setting the agenda and the quality of the schools in which they work.
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more columns by Joe, view his back catalogue