On Accountability.

Last weekend I was privileged to be asked to be part of the panel debate at #BrewEdWake. Daryn asked me to present, and was kind enough to allow me to not have to stand in front of a crowd on my own. The questions were excellent, and the first one certainly had us all thinking about how to get collective ambition back into the teaching profession.

I can’t quite remember what prompted me to make the point that I did about accountability, but I explained about my three and a half years of teaching in Australia. For the first six months I was doing my probation period (similar to induction here in the UK). During that time I was observed a grand total of twice. I was not seen again teaching a lesson before I left Australia.

Last week, having taught for ten years in the UK, I was observed twice.

I was rightly challenged by a gentleman in the audience, who said that there should be accountability measures in schools. He was absolutely right, but I didn’t get the opportunity to respond to him and so am taking the time to do it now.

I made the point that accountability doesn’t have to be the stick that it often is in schools, used to browbeat teachers into certain behaviours, pedagogy and working methods with a genuine fear of capabilities and being dismissed attached. As a trade union official, I deal every week with teachers who find themselves suddenly on an informal support plan, at the beginning of the capabilities procedure. Sometimes those teachers are genuinely struggling with their teaching and an informal support plan can be a useful tool.

Sometimes those informal support plans don’t actually include any means of support.

Some of those teachers who find themselves of informal support plans without any means of support are UPS3 teachers in schools with deficit budgets. It’s awful, but it’s true.

We absolutely should have an accountability process as teachers. We are working in publicly funded schools and no public funds should be spent without an adequate measure of accountability for those funds. Even more importantly, we are charged with the responsibility of educating a generation, and we have to be taking steps to make sure that as a profession we’re getting that right.

That does not mean that we need to be put under the microscopic every few weeks. Clearly there are schools out there who are run by effective and sensible headteachers who have trust and faith in their staff. These schools use accountability for what it should be – a checking in process to ensure that everything that can be done for students is being done. It’s not a stick in those schools, it’s a safety net.

When I said that I wasn’t observed during the last three years I was in Australia, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t accountability measures in place – they were just not based on targets and observations. We didn’t have performance management targets. We didn’t have annual appraisal cycles; we didn’t have a constant need to prove that we were capable of teaching each year by filling out forms in the hope of attaining pay progression; and we didn’t have that sense of fear that many teachers have when their classroom door opens.

Each semester our assessment results were analysed by heads of department and SLT. If the results were low, they looked at the students in the class – behaviour logs, attendance records etc. Then, if they still had questions, they spoke to us. So if a student in my Year 12 English class only managed an E grade when they might possibly have gotten a C, but their attendance was only 45% and they were frequently in trouble, then there was no need to speak to me about why I didn’t kill myself trying to get that grade up to an impossible standard.

We had book scrutinies as well. As we know by Ofsted making judgements about teaching and learning solely from book scrutinies when they choose to observe at the very end of a term when students are on trips, you can tell a lot from looking at students’ books. We didn’t choose the books to hand over – a HoD would either pop in to collect a sample or we’d hand them all over.

We also had a lot of time to talk to our colleagues. We didn’t have our own classrooms; we had department staffrooms where our desks were and where we spent our PPA time. We shared our marking for informal moderation and we planned together. It was far more collegiate than it is in the UK.

With all of that going on, it’s nigh on impossible to hide poor quality teaching. And if nothing else, we all had big windows that were open because the air conditioners inevitably failed – we could hear what was going on around the school!

So as I said, the current accountability procedure for teachers needs some work. It’s accountability for the sake of it, and not to boost the profession or the quality of teaching and learning in most cases. Instead of spending hours colour-coding books and writing comments that students will never read, I could have been planning better lessons and creating new resources. Instead of labelling folders for hours with all manner of codes and symbols, I could have been working with my colleagues to improve teaching within the department.

We need accountability, there’s no doubt about it. But we need it for ourselves, and not for anybody outside our classroom. We need it to be that safety net, and not the big stick.

We need the trust back.

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