Recently, I was talking to someone about achieving a balance between accountability and responsibility in the school system: I frequently extrapolate those terms to mean micromanaging versus trusting teachers. The conversation reminded me of talking, years ago, to some visiting teachers from Chile, who told me that Spanish has no direct translation for accountability, only responsibilidad. If only that were true of my mother tongue, I thought at the time, and still do.
This train of thought called to mind, in turn, a conversation the other week with Sarah, a young maths teacher whom I first met 10 years ago when she was just starting out on her career. At this last encounter over a restaurant meal, she confessed, somewhat ruefully, that she felt somewhat wicked and daring going out on a weeknight: it’s something she does only rarely, making an exception in honour of my visit. Ten years on, teaching in one of those tough settings nowadays described as a “left-behind/ deprived coastal area” she hasn’t time for evenings out.
The situation will be familiar to countless teachers. A committed teacher, modelling and demanding high standards, Sarah has all the preparation and marking to do, always strongly motivated to present exciting challenges to her pupils: to those keen to learn, those rewarding ones who hang on her every word (they exist in every school), but also those resistant to the allure even of her excellent classroom style.
Those demands are made of teachers in every setting. But there are many too many aspects of the current school system that make it harder than it should be for her to do her job.
For example, Sarah teaches a Year 10 bottom set. For many of these 14-year-olds, the most basic mathematical concepts remain impenetrable, despite her best efforts. Nonetheless, there’s the matter of their exercise books. Book scrutiny will affect Sarah’s performance management: if it’s deemed inadequate, she won’t be able to move up to the next point on the pay scale.
Having been denied a pay rise by a book scrutiny a couple of years ago, Sarah has learned that it’s necessary to fill the pages of even the most challenged pupils with lots of material. Now she uses templates, ready-made materials which can be stuck into their books to reassure the scrutineer that her pupils are busy, even though such information on its own furnishes no indication of their level of understanding.
Cynical, perhaps: but what’s Sarah to do? An absurd accountability mechanism requires her to achieve the impossible: meanwhile, failure to work that miracle will hurt her salary.
It gets harder. Recently an extra pupil has been added to that set, admittedly with a teaching assistant to help. Checking with the academy’s Sendco, Sarah found that this Year 10 child has the mathematical age/ability profile of a six-year-old.
She does her best with this new arrival, as she does with all her pupils, and understandably relies on the TA to do nearly all the individual work one-to-one, since the child cannot begin to tackle the work of the rest of the group. But now she’s told that this pupil’s progress will form part of her performance management. That’s hardly fair, she suggested: after all, the TA does most of the work.
“Yes,” came the reply, “But someone must be held responsible for every pupil, whatever their learning difficulty. It’s a question of accountability.”
There it is again, the wilful confusion between responsibility and accountability. As her school’s leadership team bows to an obsessive government accountability system, Sarah is not responsible (ie, taking a professional and painstaking lead in the child’s development) but accountable, judged on arbitrary measures of their progress.
Senior staff, she reports, open most meetings with “Of course, it’s not all about Ofsted…” As a linguist might say, the “but” is not spoken, but is understood.
Small wonder that Sarah’s workload is increased by having daily to settle in an endless stream of supply teachers, since staff absence is high: another responsibility, then.
After 10 years, she’s had enough and is looking to leave teaching. Hands up who’s surprised.