The Accountability Scenario


Long ago, in my first job, in my first school I was, for a while, the convener of a short-lived Staff Association. In that role I was talking, one day, with the Head Teacher - a man from whom I learned a lot and who became a friend. He spoke about “the Accountability Scenario”. He was a great man for the ‘scenario’. One of the big changes he saw coming was that schools would be held accountable for their successes and failures through published league tables and school boards with parent majorities to whom the Head Teacher had to report.

Wind forward 35 years and the Accountability Scenario, if what I am reading on Twitter and other social media is anything to go by, is with us with a vengeance. Its focus however, has shifted down to the classroom as well as the school. Ever more individual teachers are being held accountable for results and for what goes on in their classrooms. On one level, of course, this is entirely reasonable. If I were an utterly duff teacher and kids were learning nothing from my lessons then, rightly, that should be addressed. If the kids in my lab were constantly swinging from the lights (thank the stars for striplights) then it would be entirely proper that questions should be asked and the matter should be dealt with. If I were an incompetent teacher then it is entirely right that I should face either a programme of retraining and support or, ultimately, the sack. Contrary to popular belief processes that lead to these ends exist. As a union representative I have had to support people through them and, trust me, it isn’t pretty.

On one level then the Accountability Scenario for individual teachers makes sense. In some increasingly large quarters, though, it seems to be getting a little unreasonable. It is getting to the point where teachers are being held solely accountable for what happens in their classrooms - for behaviour and for exam results. Let me tell you why that’s a very, very bad thing.

Let’s take exam results. Modern technology (you can tell my age just by that phrase) means that school managements can have a constant overview of test and exam results and are encouraged, by Inspectors and Governors,  to keep those results under constant review in the mistaken belief that data is knowledge and that knowledge is understanding; in the mistaken belief that by reading a spreadsheet school managers can understand what is happening for each child in each classroom across the school. There is a word for such beliefs and it rhymes with ‘rowlocks’.

The consequences of such mistaken belief, though, are huge. Heads of Department are hauled into “Attainment Meetings” and quizzed on the test and exam results of kids in the classes of each of their department members. “Let’s look at Mr Smith’s mock exam results. They are 20% lower, on average, than Mr Jones. Is there a problem with his teaching?” 

Maybe the problem is that the kids in Mr Smith’s class aren’t as bright as the kids in Mr Jones’s class? Maybe more of them don’t intend to continue with the subject

 and don’t revise as thoroughly? Maybe more of them have part-time jobs? Increasingly those objections are being met with “Mr Smith is the professional in the classroom. It’s his job to inspire kids to do well.” That’s the Accountability Scenario.

Mr Smith is also the adult in the room. A phrase increasingly being applied when classroom behaviour is an issue. I have heard of kids being sent out of classrooms because their behaviour has been violent, abusive and, sometimes, positively dangerous only to be sent back into the room without sanction by a member of school management because, as the adult in the room, it was the teacher’s job to manage the child’s behaviour; to “de-escalate the situation”. That is the Accountability Scenario.

The irony is that such things occur in  schools that claim to be ‘pupil-centred’ in their approach; in schools that claim to ‘care’ about the children in their establishments. The fact is, though, that by holding teachers accountable for everything that happens in their classrooms, including test and exam results and including the behaviour of their students they remove accountability from children in classes. 

The result is that school managements deny children agency in their education. If responsibility for a child’s learning lies only with the teacher then why should they ask questions? It’s the teacher’s job to have taught them what they need to know. Why should they seek out other subject resources? If responsibility for a child’s classroom behaviour lies only with the teacher then why should they change it? Why should they question themselves?

This is why this new Accountability Scenario. is so dangerous. It damages the teachers who are being held accountable way less than the children they teach.