Accountability ‘stick’ is taking us to the brink: Time for radical change.

Over the last few weeks, there have been some superb blogs and articles, alongside some grim news reports, adding fuel to the fire that is burning under our accountability culture.  More and more, as more and more people are saying, it seems blindingly obvious that our system of very high stakes inspection and performance measures has gone way past the point of having a positive impact. This is reinforced by various command and control elements of school management culture that have permeated our system in response: the whole machinery of appraisal, performance targets, performance pay, grading of book scrutinies and so on.

All of this is now making the system worse.  Despite having the most intense system of school inspections and national examinations in the world, there’s no sign that we’re now producing better educated cohorts of young people and teacher recruitment and retention continues to be a major crisis.  It’s not working.

Here are some articles that capture where we are:

Dr Becky Allen’s fantastic speech about the crazy audit culture we’ve developed and the damage it has done. (It’s a must read.)

John Tomsett’s blogs about his Ofsted report – showing official recognition that schools have to choose between integrity and school performance measures – and about workload, showing the range of issues that schools have to explore to create good working conditions.

This TES report that recruitment to teacher training has fallen significantly – by 40%!

This TES article by Tom Rogers about the absurdity of Ofsted grading given the relatively small impact teachers can have in different contexts.

This superb article by Maria Cunningham in SecEd about effective performance management practices – challenging so many of our more toxic and misguided approaches.

This powerful TES article by David Jones  about the impact that teacher burnout has on schools.

I could also list several articles about teacher mental health, Headteachers leaving the profession, Stephen Tierney and Heads’ Roundtable articles on Ofsted Reform, Ross McGill’s campaigning blogs tackling excessive workload in schools… there’s so much material.  Here’s my own blog about why we should drop the house of cards of Ofsted grades for schools.

Most recently, look at Geoff Barton’s comments on the latest Ofsted report. Yes, they just might be part of the teacher burnout problem they themselves identify.

Here’s how I see it:

postive impactThe ‘stick’ refers to elements of our system that drive school behaviours by force of the risk or threat of negative consequences.  Inspection is a key ‘stick’ element; public scrutiny of exam data is another; direct and indirect critique of schools from the DFE, Secretaries of State, and HMCIs is another.  The graph shows how the positive impact of ‘stick intensity’ changes – in five zones.

Zone A:  Here, the system is underperforming because there isn’t enough stick intensity.  We need at least a minimal level of accountability pressure to keep schools moving forward.

Zone B:  Here, accountability pressure has a positive impact, driving schools to implement positive sustainable change, still with scope for going further.

Zone C: The sweet spot; positive pressure to improve is optimum without having unhealthy negative consequences.

Zone D:  The pressure is too high now.  Positive gains are diminished by negative effects: Teachers start leaving; school cultures become toxic, perverse incentives start taking effect over principled decision.

Zone E: Here the system is fully overcooked; the stick intensity is so high that teacher recruitment and retention become unsustainably low, too many schools are patching things together,  leadership turnover is unsustainably high, the quality, breadth and depth of curriculum is damaged by short-term outcomes-driven practices.  Across the system as a whole, things are getting worse.

Over the last 30 years, we’ve moved through all these zones.  Starting with Chris Woodhead, moving onto Ed Balls, then Sir Michael Wilshaw, Michael Gove, Nicky Morgan… successive people in the key roles of Sec of State or HMCI have adopted ‘tough talk’ rhetoric to demonise school leaders and teachers for their failures. We’ve had decades of serial school-bashing, teacher-bashing and Headteacher-bashing.

And here’s the news:  We are now in Zone E.

This is what is happening now. Unless we recognise that and dial down the counterproductive intensity with some urgency we’re going to fall over the edge.  Instead of recruiting teachers and leaders into a system where we’ve all got guns to our heads, we need to create a professional culture where the challenges schools face are seen as shared problems, where the solutions are not about blame and vilification and where officials and politicians drop all the ‘tough talk’.  It has to stop.

There is another way….  follow-up blog under construction.






  1. In total agreement. The difficulties that for a decade have been in the purview of challenging schools – recruiting staff – retaining staff – days lost to illness – lack of resourcing – trial by results – impact of major changes with too little time to adjust have filtered into the mainstream of schools. If Justine Greening wants to close societal gaps then she needs to spend more time listening and visiting and less time spouting offensive sound bites like no community left behind when her own party has contributed hugely to ensuring that many communities are. Start by talking to every Head of an RI / Inadequate school that hasn’t sought to PX its most challenged and challenging young people by introducing draconian rules / quick exit exclusion policies and Saturday morning assessment tests( a la many Academies who then leave local schools to pick up the pieces). At least then she could talk from a position of being informed and might grasp that in the most challenging areas it is often the socio economic make up of these areas that Ofsted judge rather than what is actually taking place – a fact that Ofsted themselves acknowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] There has been an awful lot of stuff written recently about the increasingly high workload faced by Teachers and the creeping impact of this across the profession. Much of this workload pressure upon teaching staff comes as a result of the increasing demands placed upon the leadership of the school (or at least the perception of these); Tom Sherrington talks about this very well in his post from December 2017. […]


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