Intelligent accountability pt.1

There are three assumptions about teachers which it is worth keeping in mind when thinking about how to hold them to account for the work they do;

  1. Teachers want to do a good job (not all perhaps, but most in my experience)
  2. Teachers are most effective when they think carefully about their practice, rather than follow instructions like a production line worker
  3. If you exert enough pressure to conform to rules most teachers will eventually comply, whether or not they agree with these rules (we tend to be a generally obedient bunch)

It is number 3 that concerns me. Conforming is possibly okay if the rules are sensible and well thought through. If they aren’t then obviously it is not sensible to enforce them. Forcing compliance when the rules are bad not only makes teaching worse but, if the teacher knows they are bad rules, the feeling of doing a good job will be degraded.

Furthermore, excessive enforcement of rules around teaching arguably means teachers think less about their practice.

Given the above, we may consider the following points as guidance for designing systems of accountability;

  • Make sure any rules or specified procedures to follow are reasonable and well thought through (and there is ideally evidence to show that by following these rules there will be an improvement in learning for all pupils of different ages and abilities)
  • Don’t set too many rules which may disempower the teacher and discourage thoughtful practice
  • Explain the reasons and evidence behind the rules so teachers feel that by following them they will be a ‘good teacher’
  • Be clear about the freedom to exercise professional judgement outside of the rules (the rules should really not constrain this very much at all)
  • Be clear that it is the teachers’ responsibility to ensure that they exercise this freedom in a thoughtful way, have a rationale for how they are teaching and make efforts to evaluate the learning of students over time, and adjust their teaching appropriately
  • Choose methods of holding teachers to account that aren’t too heavily skewed towards checking the rules are being followed as opposed to checking that the teacher is exercising their professional freedom well
  • Choose methods that will promote thoughtful practice by the teacher, not merely compliance to the rules

As an example, lets consider common accountability practice in relation to marking.

My first observation is that there are too many ‘bad rules’ being applied. These range from specifying the frequency with which books should be marked to stating the approach which must be used (triple impact marking, to name one such approach). I am not going to critique these here as others have already done a good job of taking apart these policies (see

My second observation is that many accountability systems focus excessively on compliance, for example checking how frequently the books are marked or whether the right colour pen as been used to respond to feedback. Compliance is rewarded and non-compliance sanctioned, whilst the 99% of what makes a teacher effective is not noticed.

I am not making an argument for ‘anything goes’. I think it is perfectly reasonable for a school to set out some parameters for how teachers should perform their job, and hold teachers to account for staying within these parameters. I also believe that teachers can and should be expected to be effective. We are paid employees, and more importantly public servants, and it is only right that there is an expectation of value for money. Although we like to think we can exercise our professional autonomy without supervision, we also need to accept that we have a boss and toeing the line is part of everyone’s job.

My point is that if we focus excessively on rules and whether people follow them, we forget to check whether teachers are thinking. We forget to check that the practices teachers adopt are reasoned and deliberate. We forget to check that teachers are trying to see if what they do is promoting learning. We neglect to reward these attributes which, once we walk away and leave them to get on with the job, are the things that mean they carry on doing a good job in our absence.

What might a more intelligent accountability approach look like?

In relation to marking, rather than (or at least in addition to) learning walks and work sampling, what about a challenging professional dialogue? One which both checks compliance for the small number of rules we deem necessary and attempts to get at the thinking behind the teachers’ actions (their strategy). One which tests whether the teachers’ approach is joined up, responsive to the needs of the students and mindful of the impact the teaching is having.

The questions we might ask a teacher in such a dialogue might be:

  1. What is your approach to assessment, marking and feedback with this class?
  2. What is your rationale for this approach?
  3. To what extent has your marking made a tangible impact on learning for all students, particularly those with learning difficulties and low prior attainment?
  4. What have you learnt through assessment, marking and feedback about the class and their learning?
  5. How have you adapted your teaching as a result of the above?
  6. How successful have you been in improving literacy through your marking?
  7. Have you consistently applied the SPAG annotations in your marking?
  8. How have you adapted your feedback to students with learning difficulties?

The advantages of this approach in my view are many. Teachers will be more challenged than through conventional accountability methods like learning walks. They will be challenged not just to comply but to justify. However, alongside this challenge comes much more support and an opportunity to coach the teacher, testing out their assumptions and evidence base for their conclusions.

This approach, if done well, should avoid disempowering the teacher. It also ensures that the manager does not miss something (like when you criticise the ‘lack of marking’ in books only to find out that the assessed work is in a folder sitting unseen in a cupboard, or that the teacher has just taken over the group – it happens to the best of us). As a result, trust between teachers and management is built, not degraded.

If you want compliance above all else then spend you time achieving this, and be sure that your rules will deliver the goods. If you desire something more from your teachers then hold them to account for the attributes you value.

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