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.
Finding a Space to Reflect and Create
In the frenetic life of a school leader time and space are increasingly rare commodities. With a constant flow of meetings to be held, problems to solve and fires to put out – it can be very hard for leaders to find the time and space to be still and think.
However, without this chance to stop and consider what’s working and what isn’t – many leaders find themselves repeatedly making the same mistakes or simply leading on “autopilot”.This lack of space also means many have very few avenues for exploring and talking through the emotional aspects of the role, the challenges it poses and the impact is having upon them, mentally, emotionally and physically.
In turn, this can (without doubt) increase the risk of emotional ‘burn out’. When this begins to happen, not only do we experience extreme levels of mental and emotional exhaustion that can be debilitating to our ability to lead others, our health and our overall well-being. Having been a Head myself, I know all too well what this feels like but equally what must be done to prevent it!
That’s why we’re now are offering a “Developing Headspace” Programme, consisting of a 2 Day “Transforming Leadership” Residential in Suffolk, Group Nurture Meals, coaching calls and a half day “Review and a Reflect” session, all designed to support and enhance Headteachers’ capacity for authentic, inspiring and sustainable leadership.
The programme hopes to offer a space for reflection and active, informed listening, for Heads to renew perspective, think strategically, build lasting networks of support and refresh the vitality of their core purpose.
Spread across three school terms, the programme includes a range of activities designed to provide on-going care, support and encouragement for Heads across the school year.
Above all, it is our aim to ensure that the programme supports school leaders in 5 key areas…
Vision: Central to all aspects of the programme are processes and ways of working individually and collectively that keep individuals anchored to their vision.
Values: Heads are supported to identify ways of being that increase alignment with themselves and their key values.
Resilience: As Heads develop a deeper understanding of how they respond to the stresses of the role, individuals are supported to develop greater degrees of emotional, psychological and vocational resilience.
A Values Network: The programme design facilitates the development of new supportive and collaborative relationships with like-minded peers.
Confidence: As individuals experience a growth in self-awareness and appreciation of their core strengths, they also experience a growth in personal conviction and increased confidence in their own abilities.
If you’d like to find out more about the programme, and how it could help support you in your role, simply follow the link below…