Crashing Back to Accountability

Is there another way?

Co-Director, Big Education

During the pandemic, one of the notable experiences for teachers and leaders was the huge shift in dynamics around quality assurance and monitoring of work. Many experienced the need for significantly higher levels of trust in staff to be delivering learning, throwing up new opportunities as well as challenges.  

As ‘business as usual’ is now expected of us, with the return of statutory testing and Ofsted inspections, many schools have ploughed back into their traditional methodologies of work scrutiny and lesson observations. 

We think we can do better. In fact, we know it. Let me explain. 

I had the immense pleasure of observing our quality assurance meeting focused on primary ‘head’ outcomes recently. At Big Education, we are committed to an expansive educational experience for our children, what we often call an education of the head, heart and hand. Reflecting and challenging ourselves about the quality of experience and outcomes in those areas is, therefore, an important priority. 

But how should we as a Trust go about ensuring this commitment to high standards? 

The traditional approaches to the ‘standards’ agenda take the form of a senior colleague from the MAT or Local Authority engaging in a meeting with the head teacher. This classically involves a robust discussion about key data along the agenda of the external visitor. Often high stakes and linked (implicitly or explicitly) to the head teacher’s appraisal process. The head will be in ‘defensive’ mode, presenting the best possible situation and ready to give mitigations and reasons behind any blips or challenges. 

The whole process is the sort of thing that makes existing heads want to leave, and aspiring heads not want to bother. 

The toxic, top down culture of accountability permeates our system. The brutal process of Ofsted inspections could not be of any higher stakes and as such, fear and anxiety drive endless hours of preparation, scrutiny of ever changing frameworks and paperwork. 

And the sad thing is that this top down, ‘done to’ process is replicated in so many schools. At least Ofsted let you self evaluate and say what you think before they make their judgements. The reality is that many teachers and leaders are not afforded even that. 

Rethinking accountability is a long standing passion of mine. (I know, I need to get a life!) Whilst I was head at Surrey Square primary, we innovated our entire approach, developing ‘flipped quality assurance’, changing both the language (not ‘monitoring’) and processes in profound ways. Flipped QA puts teachers in charge of their own learning and development, with the emphasis being on their own reflections and growing capabilities to evaluate their own practice, with this being triangulated with colleagues. 

The approach has embedded a culture of open learning and increased self awareness and motivation in teachers, as well as refocusing senior leaders’ workloads into coaching rather than telling. Capacity building in action. 

Beyond the school, we are deeply committed to peer review – a sophisticated process of open sharing of practice as a basis for robust feedback and challenge. Built on trusting relationships, this approach fundamentally changes the relationship between schools – moving beyond competition and from ‘proving’ to ‘improving’. (This brilliant phrase comes from the EDT School Partnership Programme peer review approach).

When we formed Big Education as a MAT, we were determined to build a new and different approach to accountability which avoided some of the toxic consequences of heavily top down approaches. The head teachers and senior teams have worked with great ingenuity and commitment to establish ways of working which allow for meaningful and powerful conversations about their work. And this is what I was lucky enough to see in action.  

Watching the session, I was struck by;

  • The culture the team had created – a genuine sense of high accountability, sharing, challenge and collaboration. Radical candour (challenging directly as well as showing high levels of caring personally) was highly evident in the interactions.
  • How empowered the senior leaders involved were – to articulate their own practice and to challenge and support each other. Giving feedback and asking the challenging questions are key leadership skills to develop and it was impressive to see this work being done by leaders across the schools – a really powerful development opportunity. 
  • How getting the process as well as the relationships right is key to the rigour; being well prepared, sticking to protocols and upholding the culture of mutuality. 

Rethinking accountability is a powerful lever within schools to shift the culture and increase the openness and focus on professional learning. To delve deeper into this topic, enrol on our short course with leaders from Big Education schools to develop this practice in your own school.

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