School Improvement with Accountable Autonomy


Trust or fear? Carrot or stick? Autonomy or accountability?

These dividing lines will feel very familiar to many teachers. Everyone who has been in education for a few years can share horror stories of schools run like prisons of iron-fist accountability, or laissez faire schools with shoddy systems that preach autonomy, but only beget chaos for the teacher working away at the chalk-face.

Sustained and transformative school improvement requires that an incredibly delicate balance be struck between these two poles. School leaders must carefully cultivate the conditions for teachers to improve – balancing autonomy and accountability with deft flexibility.

Unfortunately, OFSTED proves a blunt tool with regard to school improvement. It has exposed some of the the aforementioned shoddy schools, which are a blight upon our school system, but this particular tool of accountability is all stick and no carrot. All fear and no trust.

A school labelled ‘Requiring Improvement‘ is plunged into a death spiral, rather than being set upon the path of sustained improvement. Schools live in fear of a bad inspection and it distorts what they do. Teachers do not improve in these conditions. It leads only to quick fixes and little improvement is sustained.

We need to move the argument for school improvement away from the bludgeoning stick of OFSTED. Sustained school improvement is about the teachers, stupid!

Improving teacher quality is the thing. Everyone who works in schools knows this timeless truth. Answers are trickier to come by of course. The truth is that as governments obsess over school structures, it is the difference in teacher quality across hallways within schools that is the subtle deciding factor between our students learning well or not learning very much at all.

Archon Fung, an American who studied the Chicago public school system and police force, coined the term ‘Accountable autonomy‘. He was interested in how systems and structures can work more effectively. He would no doubt commend the theory behind the academisation and Free School programmes.

I’m less enamoured by the near exclusive focus upon school structures as a model for creating great schools. Yes, we cannot ignore that creating successful school structures is important, but it appears to be the sole interest of policy makers. We need more focus on the quality of teaching – helping teachers to become even better.

It is about the teachers, stupid!

We to bring the debate back to what happens inside the classroom. We need to give teachers ‘accountable autonomy‘. The central administration – the school leadership – plays a supportive role, striking the balance between encouraging autonomy and retaining accountability for all. Sustainable improvements most often occur from the bottom up, rather than the top down.

Trust is fostered between teachers and their leaders and fertile conditions for improvement are established.

Accountable Autonomy from the Bottom Up

Recently, the Huntington School Senior Leadership Team, led by John Tomsett, undertook our annual planning weekend. It was a time to set the strategic path of the school in its aim to become truly great for our students.

What underpinned these school improvements were over ten thousands words from all of our staff about what we should improve to help them focus on becoming better teachers. Rather then concoct beguiling diktats from the Mount Olympus of leadership, we considered the thoughts of the experts – the teachers themselves.

We also considered how every change would impact upon a teacher with a full teaching timetable. Too often, decisions are made without that crucial consideration to what the one, seemingly slight, extra initiative may do to a teacher working on the very edge of their capacity.

The first issue that needed to be addressed was time. If you don’t find time, however small those wrinkles of time may be, in the course of the school day, autonomy is for naught. Teaching is too hectic. If you expect your staff to research, reflect and seek to improve their practice without time then you are on stony ground.

How do we find more time for teachers to get better? Once more, the answers are complex and different in each school. Reduce data bureaucracy; rationalise endless interventions; improve inefficient reporting; edit down endless lesson plans – the list often does go on and on. Use this time to share, collaborate and talk about teaching. Make the continuous in Continuous Professional Development real and not mere lip service.

Then there is the topic of OFSTED. Labelling teachers with OFSTED lesson observation labels is wholly discredited (see this article by Professor Coe here), with even OFSTED themselves not grading one-off showpiece lessons. Therefore we have dropped these grades. They don’t secure improvement – they hamper it. They foster the fear of the straight-jacket. They are the polar opposite of autonomy.

Therefore we are moving to a model where the teacher has the autonomy to select the observation, whether than be individual lessons or multiple parts of lessons. If there are causes for concern they can still be noted, so accountability remains rigorous, but it is balanced with real autonomy. John Tomsett’s post on lesson observations is here.

There is no need to dictate an OFSTED driven model for ‘outstanding‘ teaching and learning in lesson planning. We need to foster the autonomy free from the shackles of twenty minute gobbets of lessons designed to satisfy some fatuous idea of what it is to be an OFSTED ‘outstanding‘.

We can define our own model of great teaching and learning that is tailored for our students and designed by ourselves. We need only shine a light on the existing great teaching happening within our classrooms. We will simply grow that. All our CPD time will be driven towards that goal.

With teachers entrusted to teach well and given time to share and collaborate the possibilities are endless. It is as simple and as complex as that: accountability applied flexibly, with some genuine autonomy.

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