No need to panic

What are the three scariest words a headteacher can hear? That's easy:

"Ofsted" and "funding cuts". The fear and outrage these words evoke usually prompt a flurry of activity. And yet the tangled bureaucracy of accountability that heads face creates inertia, paralysis and a safety-first mentality.

Some members of the National College for School Leadership's leadership network tell me that headteachers are wary of breaking the mould.

The climate is changing but the true transformation of our schools requires a system of accountability that drives change and releases energy.

And what we have at the moment is a brake, not an accelerator. For example, a conversation about performance is likely to be a series of conversations with different audiences. The data will be presented by heads to the governing body for questions and scrutiny, in another meeting with the school improvement partner, at a governors' report to parents' evening if requested and with Ofsted one year in every three.

Heads are clear about the freedoms they need to transform their schools.

They also want the freedom and incentives to become "wider agents of change", collaborating with other schools to drive progress across the system.

But to do any of this in the current accountability system would require the head seeking multiple approvals from governors, local authority and the Department for Education and Skills.

I'm not advocating less accountability. But there does need to be a single point of contact in the system.

Heads need to be set free to create schools in which uniformity of provision is replaced by personalised offers. Heads need a single line of accountability, not several.

These are the engines of progress, not scary words to send us into panic mode.

Ray Tarleton The author is principal of South Dartmoor community college, Devon, and national co-ordinator of NCSL's leadership network

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