Holding to account – or holding back?

” . . . use every man according to his deserts and who should scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity; the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.” – Hamlet

Much of what we think of as holding others to account is in fact holding them back.

I haven’t met anyone in education who doesn’t think they should not be held accountable for their work. To be precise, I haven’t met anyone who says that they shouldn’t be held accountable. (I have met a few rogue individuals whose cavalier behaviour was at odds with their words). But the vast majority of teachers want to do well by their charges.

We hear much about accountability these days. In fact, at times, one might think that the only thing that mattered in education any more was accountability. Students are held to account by their test scores; teachers are held to account for their students’ progress; senior leadership are held to account by Ofsted; Ofsted are theoretically held to account by the politicians, although in fact that role tends to be filled by bloggers like Andrew Old.

There is, however, a reliance in such a hierarchical system on the expertise of the person or organisation holding others to account. I have seen with my own eyes Ofsted inspectors who were clearly fixated on a particular narrative and whose assessment was unbalanced – and clearly, by comparison with other schools’ results, unfair. It’s also clear that some senior leadership teams may be vigorous in holding others to account, but in doing so, they actually hold them back.

It happens this way: to hold others to account, we develop clear criteria to decide objectively whether a certain goal or level of performance has been achieved. However, once we allow that to become the school’s primary narrative, we doom not only our teachers but our students to a narrow and often unpleasant experience of education that is both unnecessary and unproductive. This is because we exclude from our vision other elements of school life, including many aspects of learning and personal development, that are not easily quantifiable, but still have a powerful influence on achievement outcomes – things like community, identity, resilience, or hope, to name but a few.

Secondly, we diminish trust, most obviously through micro-management. Nothing tells someone that they are not trusted like scrutinising them at frequent intervals. Feeling scrutinised makes teachers – and students – feel undervalued and eats away at their confidence. It is aversive, and as such creates antipathy and dislike without any conscious effort on the part of the one being scrutinised. These are simply common side effects of the punishment mentality that we claim to deplore.

Thirdly, we introduce contingencies that unintentionally distract us from the core business of education. This has been at the root of the changes to the game that we have seen cycling through education at an increasingly manic pace. The games masters are constantly tinkering, trying to shape the outcomes through consequences – but the often underestimated complexities inevitably mean that unintended consequences require yet more ad hoc changes to the system. 

School leaders need to consider whether three things are in place, and then add accountability. Firstly, we need to make sure that our staff and students feel secure. Is the environment safe? Do people understand that sincere mistakes will be forgiven? Does everyone believe that while a mistake or failure will be noticed and responded to, no one will be humiliated or disrespected? Is everyone, from the most powerful down, expected to be considerate and humble in dealing with others, all the time?

Secondly, we need to build confidence by recognising what people do well and communicating this to them. Nothing builds confidence and self-esteem like working at something and getting results. This is not the sentimentalist narrative of ‘self esteem’ without challenge that has led to a generation of narcissists with no particular usefulness, wandering the internet in search of someone to blame; rather it is the dignity of work and the satisfaction of its fruits.

Thirdly, we need to provide challenge. Enjoyment and growth are both intimately connected with facing and overcoming challenges. Resilience and determination are built by failing and trying again. Challenge is setting ourselves goals that induce a small amount of fear but that are within our capacity to achieve. It is the joy and surprise of these successes that builds pleasure in both teachers and students. But when we narrow the focus, we often take away the opportunity for such challenge. Without trust and confidence, who would seek to take on challenges?

I have seen colleagues blossom in an environment where security and confidence were established. The challenge pretty much took care of itself, because teachers were actively pursuing innovations and sharing ideas and new resources. The difference it made to results was significant – to be quantitative about it, a 12% increase in one year and 100% over five years at GCSE. I have also seen children disadvantaged where poor teachers were not sufficiently held to account. It happened in the end, but in the meantime they had blighted the lives of several hundred extra students. I am not arguing against accountability, but its misapplication.

It must be safe to fail, it must be fun to try, and it must be rewarding to succeed. When these conditions are in place, we can set about ‘accountability’. But if we try to do so without these preconditions, we simply create fear and suspicion. Contrary to the beliefs of some school managers I have encountered, fear and suspicion do not engender a positive work ethic. Teachers perform best when they are learning their craft, and it’s difficult if not impossible to learn when we don’t feel safe.

As school leaders we should uphold accountability, but it is only one of the factors required for success, and it is certainly not the first. Perhaps, as Hamlet advises, we need to remind ourselves of our ‘own honour and dignity’ when we consider how to manage others.





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3 Responses to Holding to account – or holding back?

  1. I agree with almost everything you say, but I would introduce a note of caution about experimentation. Teachers have a responsibility to be cautious about any method which is not tried and trusted. There should be a natural conservatism in education, just as there is in medicine. GPs are not permitted to experiment on their patients. Most of the rubbish we have seen inflicted on children since the sixties has never had any empirical justification, whereas the traditional methods which were thrown out had centuries of experience and wisdom behind them.

    • Thanks for pointing out the need for clarity of emphasis there. I absolutely agree with you that there should be good evidence for what we do in classrooms – but the fact is, most of us have little idea how to sort the wheat from the chaff. A better trained profession, one that is sharp about research and can smell a shaky conclusion a mile off, is desperately needed.

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