Everyone seems to be dancing around the elephant in the room. Jeremy Corbyn is talking about scrapping Sats. The DfE is on the workload warpath. Ofsted is myth-busting itself out of the dark ages into the 21st century, saying it doesn’t care about marking any more. Almost a third of teachers quit in the first five years, and those who stay are burning out in record numbers.
Let me clear up this edu-mess for you. It’s not Sats. It’s not workload. The elephant in the room is high-stakes accountability. And I’m calling bullshit. Our education system actively promotes holding schools, leaders and teachers at gunpoint for a very narrow set of test outcomes. This has long been proven to be one of the worst ways to bring about sustainable change. It is time to change this educational paradigm before we have no one left in the classroom except the children.
Accountability. Surely that’s a good thing? I don’t think there is an educator in the country who would disagree with the idea that schools have a responsibility to be their very best. But we have options about how we make it happen.
Gunpoint is one option. We tell schools, leaders and teachers to make something happen or they will be miserable, jobless or a combination of both. This can lead to some pretty quick change, but it’s not long-lasting and will bring only compliance to the minimum standards because being held at gunpoint is stifling. It creates a “take-no-risks” attitude that becomes enshrined in the culture of leadership within a school. School improvement is seen as school inspection. Gains are made by the act of weighing. When gains are not made, the problem lies within the school, leader or teacher, rather than the culture, climate or conditions. But this isn’t the only option. There is another way.
We can design a system that has no shortfalls in recruitment or retention, and where teachers and leaders are able to grow professionally over time, and help others to do the same. Every school is supported to be its very best.
In such systems – and they do exist in some countries, such as Finland and Canada, and even in some brave schools in this country – development isn’t centred on inspection, but rather professional collaboration. These schools don’t perform regular observations and monitoring, or fire out over-prescriptive performance policies. Instead, they discuss and design pedagogy, engage in action research, and regularly perform activities such as learning and lesson study. Everyone understands that growing great educators involves moments of brilliance and moments of mayhem.
Such systems and schools consistently achieve top results. The teachers have autonomy and are trusted to make decisions concerning their classroom instruction. Workload is not an issue. Why would it be? The work that teachers carry out is meaningful to them and impacts directly and sustainably on their pupils.
These systems don’t overburden schools with prescription and policy. There are no guns pointed at anyone. When a school is struggling, the entire system rallies around it with finance, resource and expertise.
And yet, in England, this type of thinking is distinctly unconventional. It takes courage and conviction. A rogue leader. It requires us to rethink what we’ve always been told is true, necessary and valuable.
So it’s time to call out high-stakes accountability and all of its agents. It’s time to replace the stinking odour of inspection, monitoring and scrutiny with collaboration, connection, research, sustainability, and a genuine respect and belief in our professional people. This exists. It’s possible. It’s real. No bullshit.
• Jeremy Hannay is the headteacher of Three Bridges primary school, Southall, west London. #HappiestSchoolOnEarth
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