Building a Trust Culture: It’s not all hugs

In the last two weeks I’ve been to a number of conference events with the SSAT and Essex Headteachers and attended the London Festival of Education.  I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and hearing the wise words of some of the best contemporary educational thinkers: Guy Claxton, John Hattie, Sir Tim Brighouse, John West-Burnham.  I’ve also listened to and read what Sir Michael Wilshaw and Michael Gove had to say and heard a lot about Finland.  Perhaps most importantly I’ve been talking to school leaders and teachers from across the country. From all of this talk,  I’d suggest that although some ideas are presented differently, there is an overarching or underpinning consensus about some key issues.

  • we all want a ‘World Class’ system;
  • we want an aspirational system that doesn’t put a lid on any child’s  or school’s ambition;
  • we agree that teachers make a significant difference so teacher quality is key;
  • we agree that highly effective leaders also make a difference;
  • there is consensus that leaders and teachers need to be passionate, driven and innovative;
  • in principle if not in the detail, we agree that breadth in the curriculum matters as well as a strong common core;
  • if the dichotomisers are ignored, by and large we agree that knowledge and skills both matter; learning fit for life the ’21st Century’ matters;
  • again, details aside, we accept that rigorous assessment is an important aspect of a world class system;
  •  and there is no argument that schools, leaders and teachers should be held to account; we accept that freedoms come with responsibilities.

So – we know what we want.  However, there is less agreement about where we are now in relation to these goals and how we’re going to reach them.  We’re told a lot about Finland. Why? Because apparently their system is like the one I’ve just described.  The Finland story is basically one of a virtuous circle:

  •  A high quality education system generates graduates of high calibre who are attracted to join the prestigious teaching profession.
  • The demand is such that it is possible to select only the very best candidates.
  • They join a professional culture that gives them autonomy but also responsibility for the curriculum, assessment and pedagogy.
  • There is a high level of parental engagement, trust and respect, because the system delivers at a reasonably uniformly high level.
  • Public support and satisfaction fuels political trust and embraces devolved local decision making
  • A culture of high expectations for all pervades so that low quality is not tolerated from anyone (what John West-Burnham calls ‘consensual authoritarianism’) and the drive for continuous improvement and excellence is self-generated from within the system
  • These conditions keep teachers motivated and rewarded enabling learners to flourish and achieve at a high level.
  • They go to university  and do well……

So, at a system level, the trust is there; teachers and schools deliver and everyone is happy.  Arguably in England, the situation is in reverse… there is a debate to be had about where to start on the circle.  It’s a chicken and egg scenario.  I’ll go for this…

  • There is unevenness in the system; some schools are more effective than others; some teachers are more effective than others; parental engagement is highly variable; many parents opt out altogether.
  • Public and political pressures dictate that Governments ‘do something’ about education because some people are unhappy; they make ever more highly centralised policy with a tough accountability-driven approach.
  • Teachers, leaders and schools are under pressure to deliver; regardless of their actual strengths, there is a shared sense of being coshed; this breeds insecurity, leads to defensiveness and simultaneously forces teachers and schools to focus primarily on short-term measured outcomes.  The inspection regime reinforces this – even if its Chief Inspector sounds utterly plausible and reasonable.
  • Deep learning outcomes are not truly enhanced in the system to the extent expected or required; the ‘exam factory’ model feels real; even improved outcomes in examinations are derided as a sign of low standards;  international comparisons don’t look good.
  • The public perception of the teaching profession is continually battered; top graduates don’t rush to the door of the Teacher Training institutions;  some schools struggle to recruit enough teachers or headteachers of genuine high calibre;
  • All teachers and leaders, including the best, enter a system where the level of autonomy is low and there is a perception that serial hoop jumping is a key driver; high quality teachers and leaders feel demoralised; the profession circles the wagons and ceases to be self-critical with the tools for internal quality assurance.

A caricature? Maybe but real enough. So the challenge that we face is to move from this low trust, command and control, circled wagons scenario to the Finnish scenario: high trust; high performance.  Where are we going to start?

At a school level, this transition is hard enough; it is also challenging on a class or individual level. Is it Chicken? Or Egg?  Do you trust enough to take a risk, offer up a chance to succeed or fail and then develop deeper trust based on a positive outcome or the evident desire to strive for success.  Or do you demand success as precursor to trust and only let go when it is absolutely secure?  In the latter case, how do you know what students or teachers are truly capable of?  In the former case, is it acceptable to run the risk of failure?

Well in my experience the answer is always Egg!  The trust has to be given first;  the wagons do not un-circle unless you do this. However, this isn’t all soft hugs and feelgood factor: you need to take a risk at the same time as demanding high quality outcomes and reinforcing that people act with integrity: ie they do the right thing when no-one is looking (an idea nicked from Alistair Smith). Rather like the difference between a cage, a Safari Park or a Game Reserve…. it is a question of how much freedom you give before you hit the fence, but there is always a fence in the end.  Here, we are talking about student outcomes as the boundary.  Do it your own way – but deliver! That is what trust looks like.  Not, do what you like because nobody cares.

At a system level, do we expect or even want any Government to relax the controls and say  “off you go, teachers and leaders; do what you like and make it happen?”  I wonder if we’d suffer from an immediate relapse having developed institutional system-wide Stockholm Syndrome for the last 30 years? Captives afraid of the outside world after all this time and secretly attached to our captors? Food for thought!

My impression is that the combined effect of successive OfSTED regimes combined with narrowly defined league table performance measures has had a shattering effect on the system in terms of our inherent capacity for autonomous self evaluation and accountability.  We’ve lost our bearings. Too many capable Heads and talented teachers are deeply inhibited, afraid to fail, afraid to be trusting of others and are deeply risk-averse.  This can’t be their fault alone. The system needs to change. When a lot of really good people are shouting loud and clear ‘just let me get on with it’, ‘let me teach’, ‘let me run my school they way I see fit’….but feel shackled, it can’t be right.  High trust schools, with superb Heads and outstanding outcomes are still dragged into the mire with dodgy accountability processes, flawed examinations and partial inspection judgements.

However, realistically, can we demand more autonomy and ask to be trusted more until we demonstrate that, across the system, controls aren’t really needed?  My view is that, within the existing system, many teachers and leaders already have more autonomy and freedom than they know what to do with. (There, I said it.) There are perverse incentives inherent in the league table culture that lead to a narrowing curriculum and an almost absurd over-emphasis on Year 11 intervention – but these are not directly imposed.  We choose to act compliantly.  Perhaps we have all the real autonomy we need but just need to be more courageous (I want to say ‘grow some’) and do what we believe in anyway.  I have said this often to colleagues complaining about ‘the rules’. ‘What would you do if it was totally up to you?’ The answer, too often, is that they don’t know. (eg on designing their ideal curriculum model.)

Underpinning a lot of current discourse is a failure to talk in detail about the range with a body of teachers or collections of schools.  ‘Teachers’ and ‘Schools’ are very often used to describe all teachers and all schools, crudely lumped together. Similarly ‘good teachers’ and ‘bad teachers’ is a gigantic oversimplification.  We are so quick to get on the defensive when some says that teaching could be better.  This becomes ‘blaming the teachers’  which is deemed to be unacceptable so we shut-up shop. Wagons circled.  Of course, most teachers are doing a great job and the vast majority can improve significantly with appropriate support and effective CPD.  But, even if we were to tolerate some mediocrity,  the almighty elephant in the room in this discussion is that some teachers and some leaders are simply not up to the job and never will be.  It’s a fact that we need to face head-on.  Even though this has an impact on us all, it is such a taboo, bordering on heresy to suggest it.  The problem is that crude accountability systems have bred such a degree of insecurity that the profession is more likely to challenge that fact than face it.  Changing this is one of the keys to moving on and it has to come from both angles;  more sophisticated and subtle accountability; an end to sweeping statements about ‘teachers’ and ‘schools’; less generalised insecurity and more internal robustness about tackling inadequate performance.

Early in my career I worked in a school where we’d often discuss whether we’d send our own children to that school.  The answer: only if we could pick the teachers. I became Union Rep for a year and found myself being asked to defend a colleague who struggled every lesson, every day.  Despite hours of intensive support, she didn’t improve.  Eventually I told her the best way to protect her job was to listen to the advice people were giving her – something she could not or would not do.  ‘You’re my union rep and even you think I’m crap’ she said.  I resigned from being Rep.  She needed to go and I wasn’t prepared to defend her given that I felt she was being treated fairly.  It was hard to shift her then and it still would be.  Accountability matters and we should embrace that with more confidence and gusto. What are people afraid of? It has been reported to me that each year in the US, 1 in 50 Doctors is forced to leave the profession, one in 150 lawyers but only 1 in 2500 teachers.  Is it similar in the UK?  I don’t know… but we’re hardly walking on a knife edge.  The real danger comes from schools that are in decline with falling rolls. Here, surely, there is more reason than any for colleagues to support and challenge each other and not to tolerate under-performance.

So, to build the trust-driven system we’d like,  we need to seize it.  As leaders we need to give it, earn it and build it.  But let’s not confuse it with anything that feels soft;  the trust we seek should come with as much rigour and challenge as you’d find anywhere.  Even Finland. The point is that we need to be doing that for ourselves, not leaving it to others.  If the system feels too big – then at least we need to work on our own patches and give our own teachers a taste of a high-trust culture. A good starting point is to set them free in the classroom.  Do whatever you like —just make it work and, every so often, dazzle!


  1. What a brilliant blog post. You display a clarity of thought and depth of vision that is completely lacking in our political “masters”, in educational matters at least. Really good stuff. I have just one question, and it’s an important one: is wanting to earn the trust of our “captors” in this way not just another manifestation of Stockholm syndrome? At what point do you envisage that they become “pleased” enough with us as a profession that they will “allow” us the freedom to take matters into our own hands? At root, this is about power, and people who have fought all their lives to gain it do not give it up lightly. If we as a profession become more gutsy and rigorous and brilliant in the way you describe, politicians will just ascribe it to their own deft governance and tighten their grip ever further. The chicken and egg cycle therefore has to be to addressed first at the point of contact, or it will never happen. Only a democratically accountable, member-driven National College of Teachers, provided with a mandate to create and implement evidence-based education policy, would be able to implement the vision you describe.


      • Great stuff….and it’s largely about courage…that’s moral courage, something which is surprisingly rare, much rarer than physical courage. So how does one encourage colleagues to exercise moral courage?

        Rod MacKinnon
        Headmaster, Bristol Grammar School


      • My classroom is as free as they come =]

        Meanwhile, there was enough talent, knowledge and understanding in that room on Saturday to design an education system that would be world-beating within 10 years. Maybe the next LFE or similar education conference should set about doing just that. Instead of waiting for permission, we should just do it. Instead of going to a seminar to hear what the head of Ofsted has to say, we should hold a seminar to explain how things are going to be solely evidence-based from now on. What are they going to do, put the entire profession through capability proceedings for only implementing practices that are proven to raise attainment? What is there to actually stop this from happening? The panopticon is nothing but smoke and mirrors…


      • Though, it is relevant to reflect on the fact that there were workshops at the London Festival of Education that were all about re-inventing the model of learning and assessment. It was telling that these had small (but passionate – I was there!) attendance in comparison to the hordes who wanted to hear the head of ofsted in the hope (I suspect) of gleaning a slither of new information about how to please the inspectorate… This phenomenon, I daresay, reinforces Tom’s point. We need courage and initiative to make change.


  2. This is an incredibly useful outline of the situation and I hope it gets widely read.

    One of the other comments from the LFE2012 that has stuck with me was Michael Rosen’s call for teachers to refocus on understanding how people learn. I’ve written here about why this is important for developing assessment:

    It seems to me that at the heart of improvement is going to be getting the balance right between the use of evidence, the use of understanding of how people learn, and the use of ethics. There are often comparisons with the medical world, (which are of limited use) but, in this sense there’s a useful comparison with the use of evidence based practise in public health. I’m no expert, but my understanding is that the evidence of what works is always considered in accordance with the bio-medical understanding of why it is or isn’t working, and that decisions on whether to act on the evidence are considered in line with the rigour of medical ethics. In education, it is good that there is an increasing look to evidence, but the groans at the repeated reference to international evidence used by Michael Gove shows that teachers understand that evidence isn’t enough on its own.

    Perhaps the problem is the old often repeated one that everyone has been to school: if I had spent 14 years sitting watching an oncologist doing their job every day I might think I knew how to do it. I might think that reading some evidence of best oncology practices made me an expert. I’d be wrong to think I understood the biology of oncology. The limits of this analogy is that perhaps people could argue that how people learn isn’t as understood as the biology of medicine, and that how people teach isn’t as scientific as pharmacology. Nevertheless, how people make use of evidence should still be underpinned by the understanding we do have.

    In order to be trusted – not just by government, but by those who the government feels at some level accountable to, i.e. the electorate – teachers should show off what can be done as you say, but perhaps they also need to work at getting this balance right by ensuring that teachers who work at understanding how people learn are as listened to as the researchers who produce the evidence – and that all work together with a respect for the ethics of education. This work could be, as suggested above, facilitated by a college of teachers.

    (Sorry for the long post!)


    • I agree that ethics, values, beliefs etc need to be laid on the table when discussing evidence-based practices. However I think the groans are more due to the faddish way in which evidence is cherry picked and wheeled out by politicians in ways that are so transparently politically expedient. For example the way in which Lucy Lee from Policy Exchange wheeled out the Philadelphia study in support of profit-making schools at LFE on Saturday, only to be shot down by Stephen Ball who had a much firmer grasp on the data than she did. If the research is mixed, then admit that it’s mixed and base your argument on other grounds. The fact that evidence-based practice was “in fashion” a few years ago before going back “out of fashion” says it all. Imagine pharmaceutical companies saying “randomised, placebo-controlled trials are SO last season! We’re basing this drug on Tarot readings…” Imagine how liberated politicians would feel if they could just hand this whole complicated can of worms to people with a firmer grasp than they, people who are not hamstrung by electoral concerns. Then they could get on with running the parts of the country that do respond to political intervention, like creating jobs for the kids to do when they leave our care… Just a thought =]


  3. What an excellent piece. As a head I am always struck by the tension between when to be flexible and when to be “shock and awe”. My general principle has always been that when a subject leader comes through the door wanting to do something, the man from del monte says yes. Its getting them to cross the threshold that is the challenge!


  4. Thanks, Tom, once again for articulating something that really has been sitting in the background to many an educational debate of late. Thanks also for dispensing so effectively with the corrosive distraction of those false-dichotomies that seem to be all pervasive currently.

    My perspective on your message, which, if I may try to reduce it into a simplified statement, is an exhortation for we educational professionals to reclaim our own domain, is that it may indeed take a cultural shift, and a large injection of moral courage for this to gain traction. If, as teachers, we are to influence the future of education in England then we absolutely must do so from a platform of our own success. This can be done – notwithstanding that our success is always, much like that of a sport coach, achieved by proxy – and it is on the strength of the confidence we gain through asserting our own effectiveness in our own work, and being willing to be accountable for it, that the foundations of a strong and confident professional platform can be built.

    I for one am more than willing to stand up and speak for my students, their parents, my school and my profession and I feel confident that those very people would support that for one reason – because I’m a proud and effective teacher. We mustn’t squander the confidence and faith that so many hold in us and our profession by cowering to political and bureaucratic forces that we know are not in the interests of the people whom we serve.

    Show me the threshold! I’ll cross it!


  5. This article articulates what we have all been thinking. It has been gnawing away deep inside of me for at least 5 years. When shackled, staff do not give their best and pupils do not benefit. You have succinctly nailed the reason that so many outstanding teachers and school leaders are so negative towards the people who should be supporting and leading them. Hands are tied and we are festering, slowly. As a senior leader, I spent a whole year in meetings that were solely Ofsted focussed. They held no interest for me. They made no difference to pupil learning and the action from these meetings just put more stress on staff. I agree with the comments above about freeing ourselves as a profession from the unhelpful politics. SLT’s need to be strong, take risks and change the fear culture that currently prevails in far too many of our schools.


  6. Please don’t reference the medical sector as a paragon of evidence based practice. Ben Goldacre’s two books are a very strong refutation of such a position.

    I can’t quite accept calls for the de-politicisation of education either. Education is deeply political, it’s about power and how power, wealth, status and position get transferred from generation to generation. At the moment our country’s elite is exceptionally good at transferring these goods to their offspring. A more meritocratic education system would be profoundly threatening to those with power and influence.

    It is much easier for those in Ofsted accredited ‘good’ or outstanding’ schools to look beyond Ofsted’s judgements. And that means it’s much easier for schools in more affluent areas (generally) to do so. Anyone who has been through special measures knows that this form of punishment could never be described as ‘smoke and mirrors’.


    • You make it sound like trench warfare! My school has just been through measures. It had to happen, our results had been on the skids for years. It meant we kept on top of marking and planned good lessons. Our results went up. No-one died.

      The reference to smoke and mirrors was not about Ofsted but the way in which teachers have come to police one another in a culture characterised by fear and defensiveness, resulting in a work to rule mentality. Fear of what? A phrase?

      I’m not sure I follow your middle paragraph. At present the education system is controlled by the very elite you describe. How do you suppose we will arrive at a more meritocratic system without addressing this head-on? By voting Labour?

      There’s an excellent article in the New Statesman this week that describes the breakdown of the meritocratic promise –


  7. […] Well we obviously need to reverse the entire process. We need to embrace risk; learn to trust; relax the controls and give people confidence. This is not a charter for complacent coasting… because challenge and trust go hand in hand; it is necessary if we are serious about creating a truly world class system.  We also need to recognise our obligations to our students and to tax-payers…. why should we expect absolute security or protection from criticism? We all need tougher hides and the strength to recognise that students with attitudes are welcome; ‘pushy’ parents are a blessing – and it is completely reasonable to meet certain standards in return for our salaries.  As I’ve argued here, building a trust culture, is not all hugs! […]


  8. […] I have written about these issues in several posts as have many others. For example, in Building a Trust Culture: it’s not all hugs I suggest that accountability and challenge within the system is vital – but also suggest that […]


  9. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after
    I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyhow, just wanted to say superb blog!


  10. […] the level of trust and trust-worthiness in the system: Building a Trust Culture, It’s not all hugs tackles this from one angle, and ‘From Plantation Thinking to Rainforest Thinking’ tackles […]


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