Can we reconcile Accountability with Humanity?

This Blog comes from an ex-secondary Headteacher, trainee therapist and Integrity Coaching Associate, Tim Small.

I hear and have sympathy with many complaints about the accountability system for schools in England and Wales. 
They echo around our professional community: …encourages teaching to the test…; the stress of SATs…’ OFSTED paralysis…; the ‘assessment tail wagging the curriculum dog’…; you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it…
Most serious are the arguments about de-humanisation and the ‘factory culture’: if young people are only equipped to (i) assimilate, store and regurgitate information and (ii) practise easily assessable skills, whenever will they learn to know and express themselves fully and understand each other?  How will they be enabled to navigate their unpredictable futures and turn challenges into opportunities?
It’s important to recognise is that these are not arguments against accountability.  As long as education costs money (and I’d like it to cost a lot more than it currently does) then those who ‘deliver’ it must always, of course, be accountable to those who pay for it.  Many of us are on both sides of that fence.  Accountability is an essential, not an evil!
The problem lies in how accountability is interpreted, both by educators and policy makers.  There is something seriously wrong when certain symptoms become prevalent.  Here are three examples:
– When students whose progress is not critical to the data analysis receive much less attention than those whose results are of tactical or statistical importance;
– When teachers spend more time processing data than designing optimal learning experiences;
– When creativity, imagination and risk-taking are suspended for weeks because an OFSTED inspection is anticipated.
When learning is reduced to routines and procedures deemed effective for grade-getting but devoid of inspiration, joy, wonder and surprise, we have a problem. If young people leave the schooling system without a strong sense of their own agency and unique gifts to the world, we have a problem.  It’s all of our problem.  It’s generational.
So, what can we do to reconcile humanity with accountability? Well I believe there are four essential ways in which School Leaders can help to resolve this problem:

1. Use our creativity and imagination to address these three questions:

1. How can we design learning experiences that involve testable knowledge and skills and engage young people with a sense of purpose, because they see the point, are given important decisions to make and are trusted with responsibility (rather than simply joining someone else’s dots)?
2. How can we devise a light-touch system for collecting data, monitoring progress and satisfying OFSTED criteria that involves minimal distraction, minimal allocation of time, energy and resource?
3. How can we gather and present compelling evidence that we are using money well by enhancing the life chances of every single learner in our care and demonstrating that real learning gets better levels and grades anyway?

2. Transcend and challenge either/or thinking

A lot of people seem attached to binary thinking.  British politics is full of it, possibly because of our adversarial parliamentary system: if you’re not for us, you must be against us!  It goes without saying that this is a divisive and destructive worldview.
People who think like this often make a catastrophic mistake about education: they assume that if you are in favour of person-centred education you must be soft on standards.  It’s a false dichotomy.  We know intuitively – and have a growing body of evidence to support this – that young people who are engaged, trusted and supported in a properly personalised curriculum achieve better outcomes.  It is not only possible, but essential to serve the accountability agenda through the humanity agenda.  It’s not either… or!

3. Be courageous, united and committed to our values

Until we have collected our own, local evidence that developing powerful, engaged learners improves test scores as well as enhancing lives, we have to believe it will work and persuade others to follow.  We need to be brave enough to let go of the apparently safer but ultimately asphyxiating narrowness of focus on levels and grades.  Of course, the boxes have to be ticked, but then let’s remember our values and get on with what really matters!
If leaders cannot create conditions in which the true values of education can flourish, we are all lost.  Leadership is about just three things:
– Sharing a vision
– Using our power to make it possible for others to realise it
– Being accountable for its success.
All three of these require courage, commitment and space for reflection.  Leaders need clarity for themselves and reinforcement from each other.

4. Create or find a ‘design space’

Lastly, courage, commitment and space for reflection are not exactly easy to come by and they need optimal conditions to grow in.  If we are seeking to renew our creative energy for resolving problems on this scale, we might do worse that follow the example of some of the most successful and entrepreneurial business leaders of our age.
Pioneering companies like Apple and Google create special design spaces for their people to be creative in: beautiful, stimulating and welcoming places where it is possible for the mind to be both very relaxed and very awake, at the same time.  They provide an ‘ecology’ for design and problem-solving and protect time for themselves and their colleagues to make good use of it.  That’s what School Leaders need, who are striving to reconcile accountability with humanity.

Without a doubt the pandemic brought many unexpected challenges for us all. However, one of the silver linings of the past two years has been a heightened awareness of what matters most for all of us. We learnt:

– The value of community

– The need to stay connected

– The importance of being supported

We also learnt that deeper connections matter, none of us can survive alone and to thrive and overcome the challenges of leadership life we need real, deep, and meaningful connections with others.

That’s why we have launched our new “Heads Together”, a new School Leadership community, designed to connect like-minded school-leaders and to provide a watering hole for inspiration, encouragement and support.

Our “Heads Together” Community is designed to provide School Leaders with:

– A vital network of support to help individuals manage the emotional strains and stresses of the role

– Collaborative forums for thoughtful exploration around timely and important leadership themes

– Inspiration and encouragement throughout the year to help keep leaders’ passion and purpose alive

If you’d like to find out more about the community, and how it could help support you in your role, simply follow the link below…

Learn more



Leave a Reply