Trust is more important than targets

WOULD you buy a second-hand car from a politician? A director of education? A member of the inspectorate? A professor of education? (What do you mean, you don't like the look of that smile?) I ask these questions because the subject of trust, both personal and professional, is currently attracting a great deal of attention. It is the theme of this year's Reith lectures given by Onora O'Neill, principal of Newnham College, Cambridge. She argues that lack of trust has extended beyond the usual suspects (politicians, lawyers, journalists) to include groups who would normally think of themselves as providing an important, ethically based public service (teachers, doctors, clergy). Why has this happened and what can be done about it?

One of the reasons offered by Baroness O'Neill is the endless requirement for accountability. The "audit culture" afflicts many professions, not least teaching. The language of checklists, guidelines, criteria, benchmarks, competences is now widely used. Targets are set and woe betide those departments and institutions which fail to reach them.

Moreover, a kind of dishonest conspiracy can develop between the assessors and the assessed. The former's raison d'etre depends on evidence of "progress": the latter find creative ways of ensuring that the targets are achieved. In other words, both have a vested interest in making the system "work" - a process that requires the occasional scapegoat (the "failing school"). After a while, the credibility of the "evidence" becomes questionable and cynicism sets in.

Then there are the grandiose "vision" and "mission" statements, favoured by senior managers who like to project the public face of their institutions.

The discourse of these statements is often boastful and exaggerated, and when the lived experience of staff and students fails to match up to the claims, disenchantment follows. Too many senior managers in education (as in other fields) mistake rhetoric for substance, and photo opportunities for real achievement. When this happens, the consequence is a further erosion of trust.

All public service organisations need to ask themselves a series of hard questions. How much faith do front-line staff (teachers, nurses, police officers) have in those who lead them? If the answer is not very much, there needs to be an honest investigation of the reasons why.

When consultation exercises take place, is there confidence that the process is managed fairly and that criticisms are really listened to? If not, what is the effect on the morale of staff and the confidence of clients? When appointments and promotions are made, are the right people appointed for the right reasons? If there is a widespread feeling that too many "political" appointments are made rather than ones based on merit and achievement, then once again the result is growing disillusionment.

So what needs to be done? First, there has to be a recognition that the ethical climate of a profession is not determined by high-sounding public utterances about vision and values. Nor is it determined by the increasingly discredited mechanisms of accountability which take up far too much time that should be devoted to the central task of education - the encouragement of learning and the development of knowledge, skills and understanding.

Second - and this is the really important point - we need to appreciate that genuine trust is promoted through small daily acts of integrity and commitment by individuals who are guided by deeply held professional principles. The task of managers is to set a good example in this respect and to create a climate in which integrity is affirmed, valued and rewarded.

If we can achieve that, the benefits to pupils and staff alike, and to the public status of teaching, will be immense.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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