How do we sustain a culture of positive accountability in our schools? There is no limit to what we can do to give the students in our schools the very best we can. We have to focus on knowing our schools as well as we possibly can, involve everyone in this process and empower each individual to strive for the very best.
I find myself having to revisit my thoughts on accountability in schools after yet another week of debate, media interest and unrest within our profession, culminating in our Secretary of State for Education being publicly heckled by a conference hall full of Headteachers (NAHT Conference 2013). He appeared largely disinterested in the concerns expressed about the culture of fear arising around OFSTED inspections. The same week also saw school leaders launch ‘INSTEAD’, a practitioner-led inspection process upholding school to school support, and DEMOS publishing their report “Detoxifying School Accountability” and proposing a more holistic approach to how schools provide evidence for what they do well and wish to improve.
Blogs, education websites and tweets have been lively with accounts of schools paralysed by the anticipation of an inspection and reports of poor experiences when the visit has taken place. The stories shared tell us that for schools striving to do better, but not far enough along the journey to satisfy the framework requirements, the spectre of being forced to ‘be academised’ circles around them and makes them feel disempowered to the point of resignation to their fate.
In the face of all of this we can experience a wide range of emotions … distress for a profession feeling downtrodden; anger at being part of a system that makes so many feel ‘done to’; concern for colleagues whose joy in education has been shaken; resignation to a fait accompli. After all, what can we do?
Thoughts revisited, all things considered, and my conclusions remain the same. There is no limit to what we can do to give the students in our schools the very best we can. We just need to do it one school at a time. We can’t change what is going on around us but we can protect our teachers and students from fearing the worst by knowing what we do best. We need to create our own culture, our own climate, our own system for accountability within our own schools. We have to focus on knowing our schools as well as we possibly can, to involve everyone in this process, and to empower each individual to strive for the very best. We need collegiality in defining what needs to improve and how we are going to do it. We need to keep excellence, enthusiasm and energy in teaching and learning.
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing” … Stephen Covey
All very easy to say, I know. However, I speak from the experience of a recent OFSTED inspection and the opportunity it gave us to be circumspect about the journey we made towards it as a leadership team and a school community. We knew ‘they’ were coming and our main aim was to sustain our own high standards of accountability without having to preface each professional development activity with “we’re not just doing this for OFSTED” (which, of course, we did anyway). As the year went on, the nod and the smile at the Head’s door at 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon, signalling another inspection-free week, was less to do with relief lest we should be found wanting, and everything to do with feeling that energy levels were down and it would just be a massive ask for everyone that week. It wasn’t an easy journey, it wasn’t a particularly difficult journey, but it was a very positive one.
I think it is because we have been able to create a strong culture of trust, together. Positive accountability is what we do. The processes of evaluating what happens in our school are part of our everyday lives, regardless of impending inspections. Our language is about teaching and learning, our moral compass is set on the course that will give our students the most positive experiences and outcomes on a daily basis. Everything else flows from this because we believe that is how it should be and as leaders, we seek to communicate it in all that we do. We know our school, our staff and our students. We involve them in continuously celebrating what we do well and seeking out what we could do better. We ask them to find the solutions and to show each other what they have found. We demystify data and ask them to tell us the story behind it.
Working together to effect change …
Lesson observations are on the whole informal, arranged between colleagues pursuing their own areas of interest and development needs. Learning Walks are regular, a result of the latest ‘issue’ everyone feels is bubbling to the surface, and involve every level of leadership. Where colleagues appear to need individual support, our best teachers ‘come alongside them’ (as beautifully phrased by one of them) to help them find their way again. When we talk about marking and feedback (and we do this, often, as a team of practitioners), we span the spectrum from the absolute basics to the incredible leaps in learning that can take place if we take on board all the amazing ideas the wider educational community is developing in this area.
We keep everyone fully appraised of the changes to inspection frameworks, we work together to seek out the ways to move from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’ or from any other stage to ‘good’. We have openly debated what ‘rapid and sustained progress’ actually means and why being able to evidence it isn’t about a lesson observation but the exceptional things we can do for our students’ learning. There has been no other dwelling upon inspections and as a Leadership Team, once we had our self-evaluation documents ready, we drew a line under them less a few reminders to update and tweak them. A moratorium was set on spending any more time discussing them in our meetings because we had lots of other things to do.
Feeling ready for the Wednesday afternoon phone call ..
The rewards of having created our own culture of positive accountability are immense. The Wednesday afternoon phone call eventually happened, and when it did, the greatest sense of relief was that come Monday morning, we could stop reminding everyone that it wasn’t all just for OFSTED. Yes, we did have one inspector we soon lost faith in, but we were confident enough to point out his shortcomings swiftly. There were absolutely no surprises from our inspection, everyone knew what our areas for improvement were beforehand and those were identified by the process. The very best thing, and something that continues to make me smile, is that on an almost daily basis a teacher tells me that they wish that OFSTED could come back in a year’s time because we’ll have sorted it all out by then. I have never been in a position where anyone has wished for an inspection, but I have to admit that I would love them to come back too.
It is hard work keeping the main thing the main thing and clearly incredibly hard in a school where difficulties are deep and many need to be convinced that there is any hope of determining your own fate. We know our own schools better than anyone else and to use a well-worn phrase, knowledge is power. Even if you know that the outcomes of external accountability are going to be challenging, a school full of people trying to make things better is an empowered school protected by its own energy and optimism. What can be said, other than that positive accountability is a culture worth creating? How could it not be?
------------ Further reading ---------------------------------------------------------------------------
Park, James : “Detoxifying School Accountability – the case for multi-perspective inspection” (DEMOS, 2013)
Some articles on the current climate:
Presentations [pdf] from the Redesigning Schooling symposium on Accountability and Intelligent Inspection:
Christine Gilbert’s summary of accountability within and across schools Chris Husbands’ international perspective of accountability and data Bill Watkin’s round-up of the recent accountability proposals and consultation