Accountability - time to pull the flush?

"Telling teachers how to teach is as ridiculous as dictating to adults about how to use the lavatory"

Well that's patently untrue. Teachers are not born teachers, innately able to do the job perfectly and consistently. And neither is 'teaching' a skill that you learn once and then apply throughout the rest of your life. Unlike lavatory use.

But the question the anonymous author raises in this article is a valid one: what impact does accountability actually have on teaching? They argue that just as signs that "remind people, in a passive aggressive way, to wipe their bum and flush" don't really have an impact on toilet behaviour, neither does accountability (book scrutiny, observation, moderation) have an impact on teaching and learning.

"Is being caught out a deterrent to that "naughty" teacher who wants to put his own kids to bed once a week, or collect her daughter from the child-minder herself every Friday as a special treat? Of course not. Teachers are adults and professionals. They should be allowed to sort themselves out."

Is this true? Well, no, on two counts:

  1. Fear does act as a deterrent: this is precisely why it's an effective and devastatingly counter-productive tool
  2. Teachers should not just 'be allowed to sort themselves out'. Anyone who's worked in any school will have seen teachers who, if left to their own devices, would have a negative impact on the children in their care. It's foolish and unhelpful to suggest that schools should operate on the basis of trust alone.

But I don't want to sound like an apologist for bad management. Even though the author's argument is unfounded, the opposite view - that the way schools hold teachers accountable is not intrusive enough and that only by further micro-monitoring will standards improve - is equally unfounded.

In fact, what both of these extreme positions show us is how accountability is experienced in some schools. Notice how stuck the author is within a black-and-white, them-or-us understanding of accountability: either management do it to you as a condescending adult treats a misbehaving child, or we professionals do it for ourselves, as noble and independent adults with no outside influence or scrutiny.

Both positions are obviously absurd and counterproductive: if it's to work in children's interests, accountability has to be a two-way process based on trust and mutual respect. Trust and mutual respect are often in short supply, though: it is all-too-easy, when faced with stressed, authoritarian managers, for teachers to become the 'naughty teacher' - powerless and resentful. It is also all-too-easy (and I speak here from personal experience) for managers to treat teachers like they are naughty children. In schools across the country there is a 'them-and-us' atmosphere which is becoming ever more deeply entrenched. The vicious cycle goes something like this:

Pressure from above (OfSTED, league tables, etc) leads managers to make greater demands on staff, who interpret the demand as a criticism of their professionalism and ability to do their job. Feeling powerless to resist or reject the demand, and being unable to express the feelings it raises, teachers use the only power they feel they have left (to comply sullenly and slowly, taking less responsibility for and ownership of the job they feel they're not trusted to do). The managers interpret this as a part of the machinery of school not working, and, feeling a worrying distance from what's going on in the classroom, respond with the only tool they feel they have: more micro-management and scrutiny. This makes teachers feel more resentful and ignored, so they comply only so far as is strictly necessary, going through the motions, and so on...

Once it kicks in, this cycle of mutual distrust leads to ever greater levels of top-down scrutiny and bottom-up resentment, as managers become ever more anxious and active, while teachers become ever more withdrawn and passive.

All of which obscures the obvious truth here: change should come from within, as well as without.

Now, it's true that we're far too focused, as an educational system, on imposing change from above and outside, and do not make enough space to trust that change will emerge from below and inside.

But it's also true that we're too quick, as teachers, to accept that we're powerless. It's become a habit, across the profession, to adopt a fatalistic "nothing's ever going to change, so I may as well get on with it and not complain" attitude - an attitude that hides a whole wealth of negative feeling which is then channelled underground, only to emerge when the teacher leaves the school or burns out completely.

Both sides are part of a negative system, and both act to sustain the system in its horrible downward spiral. Both sides bear responsibility, though each feels the other is solely to blame, and does not trust the other to solve the problem. 

So what do we do?

Well, a marriage counsellor would suggest that the only way to re-establish trust and responsibility in a relationship filled with suspicion and resentment is communication. Clear, open, honest communication.

What the author of this piece needs to communicate is not overblown passive-aggression but the desire - the need - to be taken seriously as an adult and a professional. And I dare say what the manager concerned needs to communicate is the desire - the need - to be taken seriously as a colleague and a person. What's required is for both sides to be able to say to the other: "I feel you don't treat me as I should be treated - with trust and respect".

As Clement Atlee once said:

"It is a fundamental fallacy to believe that it is possible by the elaboration of machinery to escape from the necessity of trusting one’s fellow human beings"

And he's right. No amount of the machinery of accountability can take away from the necessity of trust. And we're all responsible for re-establishing trust - not just the managers, not just the teachers.