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Held to account, the only game in town?

As a public servant, I am accountable. I get that, and I accept that is how it should be. 

I have been a headteacher for seventeen years. I have been inspected on four different occasions, have never had a follow up inspection. Have had gradings given to the schools I have led from 'satisfactory' right through to 'excellent'. Never a 'weak' or unsatisfactory. I am a fellow of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership and I have been asked to carry out work for Education Scotland, the General Teaching Counil for Scotland and my Local Authority. I have delivered professional development courses at local and national level and have written extensively for a range of professional publications. I have been asked to mentor and support colleagues and I have been invited to speak to a range conference audiences. I tell you all of this, not to blow my own trumpet, as I am sure there are many other headteachers out there who could claim much the same, and even more. No, I tell you this to help illustrate my level of frustration that I, and many other colleagues who have achieved much more, still have to spend much of our time and energies proving and demonstrating to one 'audience' after another that we are doing our jobs to the best of our abilities, we know what we are doing and that we are getting ever improving results for all our learners. Nobody seems to trust us very much, or that's how it feels.

My day, and that of many school leaders, is too tied up with finding evidence and producing data for others so that we can demonstrate our competence and prove that we are doing our jobs. We are held to account, and are expected to equally hold those we lead to account, for performance. To me, the easiest way to do that is to spend time with our learners and with our parents. They are the true 'measure' of how we are doing in our jobs. Are our learners developing and making progress in all of their learning? Are they able to articulate their learning journey and identify their strengths and development needs? How are they developing holistically as individuals and responsible citizens? Are they happy and comfortable in themselves? Do our parents feel welcome and comfortable in, and with, the school? Do they see their children developing and growing all of their capacities? Does the school support them to be able to support their children's' learning? Do they have enough information about how their children are developing and how successful they are in all of their learning? The best way to find the answers to all of these important questions is to spend time talking to both learners and their parents. Trouble is, the people who want to hold us to account don't have time to do that, so they resort to paperwork, frameworks, 'toolboxes' and a range of quality indicators and descriptors, all leading to increasing beuracracy, in order to demonstrate the answers to these questions. The people who then have to spend the time producing the tsunami of paperwork we now face are school leaders, management teams and teachers.

My contention is that it would be much better if school leaders, managers and teachers were able to focus more of their time on learning and teaching, the areas that have the greatest impacts for learners, and then we could really make a significant difference in all our schools. Just recently myself and my DHT have been prioritising getting into classrooms to support groups of pupils who we have identified as being behind where they might be expected to be. We have both been working with pupils for about an hour per day, every day, to help them with their reading, writing and spelling. The pupils we are working with have had lots of extra support and exposure to a variety of strategies as they have been moving through school. However, they are not where they should be. They are part of classes of over thirty pupils and it has been difficult for teachers to give them the time they need. Guess what? Our focused intervention is making a difference. They are enthusiastic about their learning, they are motivated and willing and they are enjoying working in a small group with myself or the DHT. Their spelling, writing and reading is improving and developing as they get the attention and support they need, and deserve.

Imagine if we could devote more time to such interventions? As a school leader, I see this is a win, win, win situation. Most importantly it's a win for the pupils as we are supporting their development and their learning. It's a win in that the conversations we are having, and work we are doing, is giving us a host of important and relevant information about the school, teachers, the strategies we have been using, and the ones we are using now. It's also a win for the system in that we are doing something concrete and effective about raising attainment and closing gaps. So what's stopping us from doing more of the same? To me, the answer to that last question is the amount of time and energy we are still having to devote to accountability actions and measures. It seems that everyone in the system has to be able to provide 'hard' evidence, through paperwork not learners, that they are making a difference for those learners. My argument is that a lot of what is produced to deliver such 'evidence' is very superficial, very ticky-boxy and easily 'gamed' or manufactured to produce the results those charged with holding us to account are looking for. In the meantime, nothing of note has improved for the learners. In short, a lot of what we are asked to produce is not worth the extensive amount of paper it's written on and, worst of all, doesn't provide any meaningful evidence of what it is supposed to show. This was noted by Gert Biesta  in a post I wrote several weeks ago, 'We might have the databut have we got the answers?', when he spoke of the validity issue we have with a lot of data and so called 'hard evidence', that is 'are we measuring what we are supposed to be measuring?' A lot of what we produce, and spend time producing, fails to actually show what we, or others, think it is showing. But, hey ho, it's data! 

Imagine an education system with high levels of trust, a bit like Finland's say? Where the profession was trusted to deliver what they are supposed to deliver for all learners in the system. Where school leaders and senior managers have as their main focus support for teachers and learners, and who were steeped in a deep understanding of learning, managing change and developing adaptive expertise and agency in all teachers. Imagine the difference we could really make for all learners and how we could close meaningfully some of the gaps that exist for some of our learners. Isn't that what we are looking for? If it is, the first thing we need to do is to create the conditions to allow this to happen. 

Accountability has its place in the system and we should all understand this, the problem is what is happening in many of our schools and systems is that accountability has become the main, or the only, game in town. 


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