Turning it all around #3: Held to account.

Accountability is what is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” Pasi Sahlberg

One so often sees in education the application of extraordinarily blunt instruments to a subtle and intricate process that it’s easy to wonder whether those devising them really have much understanding of that process at all.  Holding professionals to ‘account’ might seem like a perfectly reasonable step within a complex modern society – until one reflects further on both the meaning of the word, and the nature of what is being attempted.

I have no difficulty whatsoever for being held responsible for my actions as a teacher – but therein lies the first nuance: responsibility is accepted, but accountability is imposed. What is more, accountability has a whiff of retribution about it, suggesting no consideration of the circumstances whatsoever, whereas responsibility again is more nuanced, and has positive as well as negative connotations. But what, therefore, am I to make of the advice from a senior manager some years ago, that one should never apologise (to a parent)?

Teaching is not like working on a production line. Unlike machinery, people do not usually submit willingly to direct control – and immature ones especially so. Many of the impacts of my work depend on how others react to what I do – and I have little direct control of that: influence is the best I can really hope for. Claiming that failure is simply the premeditated failure of the professional to get it right vastly over-simplifies the nature of the situations we deal with.

Increasing the intervention may even result in the opposite effect to that desired. My own anecdotal evidence suggests that the more I do for my pupils, the less they feel they need to do for themselves, and I have colleagues who are finding the same. The incitement to teachers to do more may well be having a negative effect, while a ‘failure’ to act may just as easily be the result of insightful judgement as neglect.

There is a multitude of external factors that also affect the outcomes of a teacher’s work, many of which involve purely reactive relationships. And yet institutional thinking believes it reasonable to hold teachers individually to account for many such situations – sometimes so precisely that a numerical target is applied. This is a denial of reality, for production targets are meaningless in real educational terms, more subject to apparent chance than anything else.

Such has been the emphasis on the supply-side of education in recent years that my pupils often react with surprise when I remind them that their teachers also exist to assess how they respond to the education they are being given. Many now seem to see schooling as a situation where they are the purely passive recipients of a service, where they need take no responsibility for any of their actions or outcomes.  This has been exacerbated by the demise of things that ‘remind’ them of those responsibilities, such as end-of-year exams in lower-secondary education.

Teaching children such responsibility is in itself part of their education.The effect of ramping up the demands on precisely those who have only partial control of the situation has been to shift the emphasis away from those whom we are really seeking to influence. The argument that children have diminished responsibility on account of their immaturity misses the point in typically progressive fashion: the whole purpose of education is to develop such understandings in them, not give in to the fact they don’t already have them. It is, in my view, entirely reasonable to place upon children a requirement that they too accept some responsibility for their actions, and that includes engaging with the educational process. But I would also argue that a teacher’s responsibility therefore also extends to not duping them into believing that lessons are simple matters of transient fun, with no longer-term consequences.

To remove from children any sense of their own ability or need to influence their own futures is about as great a disservice to them as I can imagine.  What is more, the zero-sum argument that children only have one chance in life is just another denial that reality is not perfect. Some children will always ‘fail’, whatever the criteria we use, through no fault of our own. And it is also worth remembering that without ‘failure’ there can also be no ‘success’ either. Forcing people onto the defensive about this is hardly helpful.

I would not wish to visit accountability on others – but if we are going to use it, then it needs to be done wisely. The key considerations must surely be:

  • an accurate identification of what the real determinants of a situation actually are;
  • where and to what extent control of them really lies, and
  • the appropriateness with which success and failure are defined.

I find it perfectly acceptable to be held responsible for my actions as a teacher – to a degree proportionate with the real influence I have over the situation. This must include an acceptance that I do not have the benefit of hindsight when making decisions about particular courses of action. I also accept it on condition that the criteria for success or failure reflect the reality of the situation, and that the assessment is made by those who have sufficient sophistication themselves to understand the interplay between all of the relevant factors.

But I do not accept it unconditionally in order to become a fall-guy whose function is to absorb the poor decisions and risk-offloading of others simply by virtue of the fact that they can.

Responsibility is a complex dynamic, particularly in collegiate institutions such as schools, and I think the balance is currently so far from being correct that it is probably doing more harm than good. If we are going to continue with such notions, there is probably only one indicator which comes close to giving a proportionate and realistic assessment – and that is intent.

In other words, we need to examine people’s motives, for this is the clearest indicator of whether they are acting in good faith or not, while also accepting that we do not live in a perfect or predictable world. This is in itself difficult, but it comes back to the concept of an on-going, individual professional ethic. Appraising this – over a suitable period of time – would provide a fairer and more accurate reflection of a teacher’s conduct that any number of attempts to pin on individuals blame for situations whose outcomes they could neither accurately predict nor fully control – or whose causes were actually collective.

But the real problem is the misidentification of the locus of responsibility in the first place. Of course teachers need to discharge their duties as well as humanly possible – but that is rarely in genuine doubt. Therefore they are not usually deserving of blame. We need to spend less time holding teachers to account and more time ensuring that the expectations of the children themselves are sufficiently demanding.

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