Trust. It’s conditional.

Last year, I was asked to deliver some INSET-day input about relationships – between adults and children and, interestingly, between adults themselves. I wrote it up here: Relationships at School: The Adults. As part of my preparation for this, I found this article by a writer called Hannah Price (click the image).

I think she captures the whole issue superbly well and the four key headings Credibility, Reliability, Intimacy and Self-Orientation are really interesting and useful. Intimacy and Self-Orientation (the tendency to see things from your own perspective) apply mainly to interpersonal interactions. However, credibility and reliability also have wider implications for trust at a system level. The idea of trust is a supremely important concept in education but often I think it’s system-level trust that we’re talking about and problems arise when we confuse this with interpersonal trust.

Take, for example, the trust we have in the pilots of the planes we fly in; effectively we trust them with our lives. Except we don’t really trust Captain Smith and her crew; we trust the systems that train pilots; that maintain aircraft; that report on accidents. We have a background sense of the general safety record in aviation and that gives us reason to confer trust on any crew we fly with, without meeting them. Similarly, we don’t trust the other drivers on the road not to crash into us. We trust the system of driver education and policing that keeps driving standards high enough for us to feel safe. This trust is backed up by our experience. Like flying, driving is largely safe enough to risk doing: people stop at junctions and drive on the left and there are consequences if they don’t. We trust this will happen.

So, very often trust at a system-level is paramount and it’s usually our default position. However, that trust is still conditional. Every encounter with a system provides feedback – we’re testing it. Trust needs to be maintained and sustained; individuals can either reinforce it or undermine it with their actions and responses. It only takes a few bad experiences to undermine trust in a system – and then restoring that trust can take a long time. There are lots of examples where this all plays out in education.

Teacher Trust

Teachers score highly in public trust terms, for good reason. I remember dropping off my 1 year-old child at a nursery, leaving with an acute feeling that this was an enormous act of trust – essentially leaving your most-precious loved-one in the care of total strangers. It’s an act of trust that you soon get accustomed to; every parent entrusts schools to care for their children – to keep them safe and provide them with a high quality education.

But, significantly, this trust isn’t earned by the individuals directly. There’s no time for that. Initially that trust comes from the wider system that schools operate in: the one that recruits and trains teachers; the system that shapes school safeguarding cultures; that ensures there’s a sound curriculum. We trust our children’s teachers – but not as individuals. How can we? We barely know them. We actually trust teachers in general – because they’ve been through some kind of system to get to where they are.

The key to maintaining trust as a teacher is to follow Price’s guidance: you act in a way that conveys reliability and credibility. You do the things you say you’ll do and that you’re meant to do; you admit mistakes; you explain your thought process – so that behaviour management responses are seen as fair, for example. Of course at a school level, its’ the job of leaders to help teachers to maintain these things – to give them routines and systems to operate within in so that it’s easier to be reliable and maintain credibility. The institutional capacity to be credible (including admitting mistakes) and reliable (doing the things they promise to do) is a key factor in sustaining parents’ trust. I know from experience how hard it is to win back if you lose it.


Unfortunately, I find the language of trust gets rather garbled when it’s used in the discussions around assessment. ‘Scrap the exams’ (because they are unfair) people say. Instead they suggest we should trust teachers to assess students’ abilities. Of course I understand the spirit of this – especially when a significant hole has been blown in the normal running of the exam system because of Covid. However, it’s important not to confuse the system with the people. You and I may trust each other deeply on a personal and professional basis – but that doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on the standard of a piece of work. In assessment terms, we trust the outcomes of the process because the system is credible and reliable, not the people. We might trust the people to use the system – but that system is the root of the trust. The big issue with last summer’s attempt at using an algorithm was that, as soon as the results came out, some of the outcomes were so bizarre that trust in the system collapsed completely; the CAGs system was trusted more.

If we use the driving analogy, for us to trust teacher assessment more widely, in a future national system – we need a system of assessment training and policing – ie moderation – that we trust, assuming it matters to us that the outcomes of assessments are comparable and meaningful beyond their origin. In some situations these systems are deeply embedded – eg in Art GCSEs and piano grade exams where this is standard practice. Elsewhere, neither the training in assessment or the moderation is anywhere near what it would need to be to carry the weight of credibility expected. So, the argument in favour of teacher assessment needs to be an argument for investing in trust-building training and local and national moderation systems… making the case for the costs and time commitments as well as for tolerating the particular form of inherent uncertainties that any system has. You don’t hear so much of that. Stopping at a doe-eyed ‘trust teachers’ mantra just isn’t helpful.

Autonomy within Schools.

Another area where trust is invoked is where school leaders like to say ‘I trust my staff’ – as if that’s some kind of inherent principled stance they adopt that reflects well on them. But of course, that isn’t usually how this works. Where schools leaders trust their staff, they normally know them really well because year on year, they deliver outcomes that are strong, they maintain their credibility, getting strongly positive feedback from parents and, day to day, they are seen to be performing their duties in a reliable professional manner. There are always quality assurance systems in the background somewhere and, based on the information school leaders have, they feel able to trust their staff.

Of course, in many schools, teachers and leaders at various levels are on a learning curve, developing their craft. Some people find it harder than others – for example to enact the behaviour systems, to run a really good team CPD session, to give great feedback to a colleague, to devise a strong curriculum from first principles, to analyse assessment data and use it to influence curriculum responses. These things aren’t easy – and really, trust doesn’t come into it in the personal sense in which it is often used. Leaders only trust their colleagues can do these things independently because they’ve shown them that they can, normally to varying degrees; it’s not an absolute position – there’s a scale for credibility and reliability.

One question I often ask school leaders in relation to CPD (my main thing these days) is how well the team CPD sessions are run in their schools: Imagine a time when every team has an allocated CPD slot and they’re all in their meetings, doing it; how confident are you that this is going really well? Then: What are you basing that confidence rating on? The ensuing conversation is really interesting. Some teams have earned the trust of their leaders even without anyone seeing these sessions happening – because they deliver in their teaching. In other cases, there’s a recognition that, actually, a team leader – who may have many other strengths – finds it hard to run meetings as CPD; something needs to be done about it. ‘Trust’ isn’t something you can just give in a blanket fashion; autonomy is earned; confidence is fostered. That trust is conditional.

The danger here is that there is flipside to quality assurance processes if leaders err on the side of not trusting people; where the scope for earned autonomy is narrow. I know places where concerns that ‘you can’t trust everyone to do it’ manifests itself as ‘you can’t trust anyone to do it’ – so you end up with top-heavy scrutiny, checklisting and very rigid authority structures. I see all kinds of mutations of good educational ideas that result from excessive control mechanisms – the classic plantation vs rainforest scenario. Here, perhaps that element of Price’s “intimacy” applies more widely: extend trust to others. People need to be given opportunities to show they can be trusted.

System + People = Trust.

It’s probably true that the weaker our systems are, the more reliant we become on trusting individuals. There are always pockets of excellence and calm in schools where things in general aren’t working well overall – and the students often know where they are. This plays out at a political level too. Whilst I have huge levels of trust in the science community – look what they can do! – increasingly it seems that politicians and their friends can do more or less what they like – because the consequences for breaking the established codes of conduct are continually sidestepped; confidence is continually eroded and trust ebbs away. Nobody has to resign anymore! I don’t trust Boris Johnson. (Doesn’t tell the truth; doesn’t admit mistakes). I don’t trust Michael Gove for the same reasons. I don’t trust Gavin Williamson ( Doesn’t do what he says he’ll do or what he’s meant to do; doesn’t admit when he’s wrong or doesn’t know). I didn’t trust Jeremy Corbyn either. In contrast, I do trust Keir Starmer a whole lot more because I recognise him as a reliable and credible person. However, I do still trust the democratic process so I accept that our leaders were chosen by others to lead us… there’s no Trump-delusion conspiracy about the process. Much as I distrust and occasionally even despise many politicians as individuals, I know that ultimately the system is bigger and stronger than they are – even if it’s not perfect. Confidence in that wider system is paramount; it’s the system-level trust that holds us together in so many ways even when individuals undermine it.

This applies to our accountability system, the process of inspections and use of data systems to judge schools. Attempts to make it about the personal credibility of inspectors is wrong; the system as a whole needs to be trusted – to be reliable and credible. When systems have reliability and credibility issues -which they most certainly do – trust is undermined. At the same time, we have to face the reality that parents in general do not perceive those credibility deficits – they’re still at the blanket trust stage. Broadly speaking, the system seems to work so they trust it, even if it’s a house of cards of reliability to people on the inside. This is why reform in our systems for assessment and accountability is hard to secure – because any alternative has so project reliability and credibility that can’t yet be supported by evidence from the field. That’s why it’s so important for people to make a strong case for a well-thought alternative before they cry ‘scrap GCSEs’ or ‘scrap Ofsted’; they need to think about building trust in the new thing or else it will simply never ever happen.


  1. Your post is a great reminder of why leadership of a school should aim to design its accountability measures with great care, whilst bearing in mind the old adage*, ‘doing the right things right’. And once designed, ensure those systems are regularly put to the test, and spend time renewing and explaining the purposes and processes that lead to quality assurance. And whilst this takes time, and often what appears to be inordinate preparation, the longer term stability and resilience of your systems is truly rewarding for all.
    *During the early years of leadership, when there seem to be so many conflicting views on what needs to be done next, I found myself re-reading Marcus Aurelius’ meditations – good read here: I note you have lost trust in Johnson, Handcock, Wlliamson; I don’t think they ever earned our trust in the first place. They won the right to govern, and to pursue their electoral manifesto. My favourite Aurelius quote is ““If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.” And he also reminds us that we will have to work with untrustworthy people
    “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”
    ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations


  2. These were interesting reflections on trust. On the issue of assessment I prefer impersonal external assessment for a number of reasons. I live in Spain where I run a language school. The teenagers complain about the secondary school all the time because they feel bound to follow what their teachers say, even when it is absurd, because their teachers are the ones that give them all the meaningful assessments. Absurd might be when the teacher gives them an entirely nonsensical worksheet about subordinate clauses including gobbledygook Spanglish: they have to learn it that way even though they know it is wrong.

    When I was a teenager it was easy to be a rebel. In the Spanish system there are terrible consequences. Unfortunately, I know a lot of these teachers as well as they come to my classes. They are OK but they are not “the brightest and the best”. I’d trust them to look after my kids (who are all grown up and don’t need looking after any more) but I would hate them to have any kind of moral control over them or to be the doorkeepers to life chances.

    I guess, even though I have been involved in education for donkey years, I don’t trust teachers that much 😉


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