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Let us rehabilitate accountability

On a recent train journey from Sheffield to London on a Sunday evening, a friend noticed that the young woman in the seat opposite had spent most of the journey writing what seemed like a series of identical reports. Taking his cue from some of the words he read, he finally risked: "You're working very hard. Are you a teacher?

"Yes I am. These are my lesson plans."

"For the whole of next week?"

"Oh, no. These are for two months ago."

It is perhaps not surprising that the word "accountability" has fallen into disrepute in many staffrooms. Mention it to most teachers and the likely reaction is a furtive look over the shoulder in fear of head, governor, parent, Office for Standards In Education inspector or school improvement consultant.

It's easy to see why: the Government has been advocating the concept, quoting its success in the business world, and interpreting it as some sort of process whereby someone checks up on what you're doing, and often tells you that you could be doing it better or more efficiently. There rarely seems to be time or the will to discuss the judgment, and it's not always clear what the judge's qualifications are to offer a view anyway.

Most of the time and money spent on education over the past 20 years has gone into restructuring the school system or deciding the content of the curriculum. What happens in the classroom, where the teacher's responsibility for the quality of teaching and learning is crucial, has been relatively neglected.

It's not surprising if teachers' lack of confidence or enthusiasm deters them from embracing the concept of being accountable.

But what if we tried to interpret the concept more in terms of the teacher's responsibility to give an account of what shehe is doing in a lesson: what was planned, what actually took place, and what both pupils and the teacher learnt from the experience? Groups of teachers (initially a year team in a primary school, or a department in a secondary school, for example) could share accounts of the teaching and learning which had taken place, and learn from each other to reflect on their practice and look for ways to improve it, however good it already is. A school would look for different ways of putting together accounts of its progress and problems over a year, using a range of types of information and evidence.

But although communities of teachers might initially be the forum for this concept of accountability, other groups should quickly be involved. It's clear from our own practical experience, supported by research, that pupils learn more effectively if they understand the context of the tasks they are set, and how one lesson builds on its predecessor and prepares for the next.

Pupils need to have a version of the account, and their comments on their own success or difficulties in learning and on the condition that help them learn should certainly influence its composition. Governors, parents and the LEA are other important groups who need access to the account and have important contributions to make to it. If we are to restore people's confidence in the state system of education, it's clear that teachers have to find ways of giving an account to a much broader audience in the local and national community - their account as teachers - of the teaching and learning that goes on in classrooms, of how choices of teaching approach are made and reviewed, and of how pupils learn most effectively. The account of this complex and difficult process must be accessible, too: surely we've learnt lessons from how vulnerable we make ourselves if we cloak it all in jargon. If teachers could interpret "accountability" in this way, they could restore some of the self-respect they have recently lost as professional people. The focus could again be on the skilled choices they have to make if pupils are to achieve success, rather than on their compliance with external requirements.

They could play a leading part in a real "great debate" about education; they, rather than reporters, researchers or inspectors could tell "their story"; society might begin to value teachers and education more highly.

Teachers could seize the initiative at a time when both individuals and institutions, in education and elsewhere, are being required to review their own practice. Most important of all, pupils would learn more securely, and would learn to enjoy learning more.

James Learmonth is an associate of the International School Effectiveness and Improvement Centre at the London University Institute of Education.

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