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‘Professionalism is diminished and teacher morale destroyed: all in the name of school accountability’

Accountability is entirely the wrong approach to take to managing our schools and their leaders, writes one headteacher

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“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” So said Henry IV, according to William Shakespeare, whose quatercentenary we celebrate this year. It’s true also of school heads (I should know after a quarter of a century), and equally descriptive of senior leaders and countless teachers.

It’s all about our commitment to the job – and to the children we teach. This is the third (and, for the time being anyway, last) blog I’ve written concerning accountability in schools. My oldest friend, a lawyer, once asked how, considering the weight of the burden I’m paid to carry, I could sleep at night. With his legal head on he could see only the countless responsibilities we heads bear for all the things that could possibly go wrong.

I replied that I supposed it was about keeping it all in proportion and finding ways of switching off. I think I’m pretty good at both of those, though perhaps you should ask my wife and family. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t advise anyone who really values their eight hours a night to go into headship. There’s just too much going on to allow one really to empty the brain out before going to bed, so it often happens that things, usually the unresolved matters, lodge themselves in the mind and banish sleep.

Indeed, ever since reading Harry Potter (and, even better, seeing the films where the spell was spectacularly demonstrated), I’ve fancied a device like Albus Dumbledore’s pensieve, author J K Rowling’s brilliant invention for the headmaster of Hogwarts by which he could pull memories out of his (or someone else’s) head with his wand and store them in a bottle. That would certainly save brain-overload and create space for tranquillity and sleep.

In any case, at my age sleep just isn’t what it used to be, even without the countless human interactions of the previous day spinning round in the head. But this isn’t just a middle-aged thing: nor is it about someone who can’t sort out their work-life balance.

I’m not complaining. I still regard my job as demanding but fairly rewarded, and (above all) immensely rewarding. It still gets me out of bed in the morning, eager to get on with it. And while it’s true that the head (in both senses) lies uneasy, the reason for this borderline insomnia is at the same time simple and real. What my head is full of is important: it’s stuff that matters. And it’s about people.

I don’t believe what I’m describing differs much for all school leaders, even if I’m now a bit older than most and have fewer reserves of energy nowadays. We are our own harshest critics, and our own taskmasters. We accept the responsibility we bear for every young life in our charge, and we don’t complain about it (except in the pub, when anyone will listen – which they don’t). We can’t even enjoy those August results days because, no matter how many delighted candidates there are, we feel much more keenly the disappointment of the few who have missed out.

My lawyer friend was, after all, at least half right. School leaders feel their true accountability – to pupils and their parents – every minute of every working day (and most of the rest of the time). That’s why we don’t need successions of tests designed by government solely to check that schools are doing what they should be doing; nor progress measures; nor benchmarks, unrealistic targets or arbitrary floor-standards that, even after all these years, betray a bureaucratic mindset still unable to grasp the fact that some children must be below average. Indeed, all those risk pushing us into setting wrong priorities – going for points rather than the best options for the children we teach.

Making people prove that they’re doing what they’re already doing, and creating additional tasks purely for that purpose, diminishes professionalism, creates helplessness and destroys morale: yet it happens constantly in schools and is justified in the name of accountability.

I once lectured to some Chilean teachers. They couldn’t get their heads round the word "accountability". The closest Spanish word they could find was "responsabilidad" ("responsibility").

Therein lies a difference. Meanwhile, we are stuck with the wrong word, poorly applied.

Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The views expressed here are personal.

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