TESS Article 3

Here’s the third of my articles for TESS

Before going on to read this article I’d like you to pause a moment and ask you to come up with a personal example of accountability.
Without claiming to be a mind reader I’d be prepared to bet that you selected something that will happen when something goes wrong! – if you don’t believe me try it with some colleagues. From such a premise it can be argued that almost all of us involved in education are adversely affected by an overly negative perception relating to our view of accountability
Accountability, therefore, is seen by most of us to be inextricably linked to personal liability – it’s almost as if we are supposed to provide the insurance scheme in relation to our work, i.e. “I will be held to account of things go wrong”. I’ll call this “Accountability as Consequence”
The purpose of this enquiry is to explore an alternative perception of accountability and how this could have a dramatically positive influence upon our practice, the culture of our working environment, and our own well-being.
However, before setting out that alternative model it might help to list some of the outcomes of “accountability as consequence” which focuses upon the negative consequences of personal liability upon educational managers? For example:
1. Accountability appears to be external and imposed with little space for personal autonomy.
2. Managers feel under significant external pressure over which they have little control.
3. The abiding practice generated within such a culture is one of “cover your back”.
4. Managers feel isolated and vulnerable to external criticism.
5. Managers complain of high levels of stress.
Managers typically handle this pressure by imposing controlling systems. These systems are characterised by a:
1. Reluctance to empower others;
2. Narrow focus upon only those areas which we can be held liable;
3. Reluctance to trust the judgement of others;
4. Reluctance to take risks;
5. Reluctance to engage in partnership agreements which they cannot control
6. Fear of negative publicity.
All of the above go towards reinforcing the culture that reflects all of the negative outcomes set out in points 1-5 but for all people in the organization. This could be described as the negative “cascade effect” of “accountability as consequence” with the pressure being transferred to all the members of the organization.
The effect of the above will vary from place-to-place and person-to-person but there can be little doubt that it has a negative impact upon the manager; those whom they manage; and the quality of the service they provide.
So what might be the alternative to such a pervasive understanding of what accountability means?
The model I would wish to propose is underpinned by a notion of
”accountability as personal commitment” In this model accountability is underpinned by personal commitment – as opposed to fear of consequence.
The difference in this model is that people have to be seen as being driven by a deep personal vocation to deliver the best possible standards of service, which will extend far above what might be seen as a “line of consequence”, where blame can be apportioned.
The alternative to the “line of consequence” is a “line of aspiration”. If the manager sets out to keep himself or herself above the “line of consequence” their attention is focused upon avoiding the trigger points which would happen if they dropped below the line of consequence in any of their key performance indicators.
The problem with this model is that it concentrates on standards which exist well below potential levels of performance – with the abiding message being – “don’t draw attention to yourself.” 
In the alternative model the focus is upon the “line of aspiration” which is driven by the person and extends far beyond what might have been trigger points for the “line of consequence”. The underlying characteristics of such a culture are founded upon an assumption that people have personal integrity and commitment to perform at the highest possible standards.
I would argue that the outcomes of such a culture would be the creation of a more liberating and empowering workplace, reflecting high levels of mutual trust and consequent personal job satisfaction. The creation of such a culture has the potential to raise the quality of educational provision to levels far beyond the norm as currently limited by the existing perception of accountability.

5 thoughts on “TESS Article 3

  1. Fantastic Don!
    We need to re-invigorate this belief in vocation and I suppose also moral purpose in education. The good school in the good society stuff! But the crux of the matter is trust and letting go control. To do that we have to really firmly believe that everyone has the ability to improve and get even better at what they do best.

  2. Thanks Don! The children do this what we are doing next week bit. Each class has a “What we are learning book” – every Friday they all discuss this and 2 children from each class P1-7 gather with a classroom assistant to update their class webpages with what we are learning – it helps keep a focus on learning and gives us a chance to develop a skill set with children from each class and involves all teachers in the website no matter what their personal ICT skills are, it has also given a support assistant additional skills. It’s just a little thing but keeps everyone involved and takes the strain off our two ICT co-ordinators a bit in the updating bit.
    I was reading your stuff about maths training and found that very interesting – where can I get more information on this? We have been using Linda Keith from Strathclyde Uni to help develop/raise awareness in this area.

  3. I enjoyed our discussion on this Don. Your suggested alternative way of looking at accountability makes a lot of sense.
    Where there is “Personal Commitment”, accountability should be ingrained in the way of life of the good school. Here are some practical examples.
    * Senior staff spend intervals and lunchtimes among the pupils, where they welcome questions from the pupils.
    * Senior staff attend “extra activities”,,, discos, dances concerts, sports events, PTA, where they welcome all informal questions etc. about the school.
    * Extra parents’evenings are organised with plenty of time for questions,,,e.g for P7 parents,for S1 on study skills, For S2 on subject choices/careers, likewise for senior choice, preparing for exams.
    * Having reply slips to all communications with an area to encourage questions and replies,,,and making sure every one of them receives a written reply.
    * Encourage all pupils to complain if their education is being damaged by the behaviour of other pupils or anything else.
    * Ask pupils to give feedback on their courses using a formal questionnaires,,, e.g at the end of S3. I found this to be very useful and teachers were very interested to learn the views of their pupils on their courses.
    * Senior staff should spend as much time as possible visiting classes, particularly those where support would be helpful, but it is possible to look in on many classes in a short time.
    * Senior staff are available to other staff, (before school or after school are often the best times.)

    I know you did many of these things and took some of them further. No doubt you will know of many other examples.
    Perhaps good accountability is a bit like good leadership and even good ethos, in that: where there is a high level of “personal commitment” (and a good dose of common sense) these things are natural outcomes.
    It semms I am agreeing with you, but I hope these practical suggestions from someone who first studied engineering, are of some use.
    Norman Roxburgh

  4. Norman

    You provide a great list of practical things that leaders can do to demonstrate their commitment to improving education for its own sake.

    I look forward to chatting these through in futher detail when we next meet.


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