WEEK 17 - Friday 19 January 2024
The topic of ‘accountability’ has come up repeatedly in my work and thinking this week. Firstly, it is the theme of some work I am doing to secure my NPQEL (an executive leadership qualification for school leaders); in one of the sections, we were asked to think about how we create a culture of accountability, where people are held to account but where they also take responsibility for their actions, behaviour and crucially for their mistakes.
Then it arose again in some collaboration work I was doing with fellow Trust Leaders yesterday, where we explored the Nolan Principles of Public Life and, in particular, how we, as school and Trust leaders, accept accountability and ensure we have processes in place to hold ourselves, and others, to account.
Finally, after a bit of a gap, I have found my way back into watching old episodes of ‘The West Wing’ recently and was reminded of a quotation in the show which was attributed to an ex-mayor of New York who said, ‘If a sparrow breaks a wing in Central Park, I feel responsible.’
That overwhelming sense of responsibility is something we all feel as school leaders, as we accept the presence of over 1400 young people onto our site each day, and a further 450+ at Penshurst and keep them safe and educated.
The dual notions of accountability and responsibility I find fascinating and although the two terms are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between the two. ‘Accountability’ relates to the outcomes of the work we do, e.g. we are accountable for the outcomes of the students we teach. ‘Responsibility’ relates to the actions we demonstrate e.g. we take responsibility for providing strong teaching etc. The ability to take responsibility also depends upon having the resources and the decision-making autonomy to be able to do a job and so there is a subtle difference between the two concepts. Crucially, it is in the space between those two where frustration of school staff and leaders often exists.
A good example relates to school attendance. We are held accountable for our attendance levels and do everything we can to encourage and promote it but ultimately the responsibility to come into school rests with the student, and parents. Similarly, we are held accountable for examination outcomes but often do not have the resources or specialist teachers to carry out our responsibilities to deliver high quality teaching and examination preparation.
We are not alone; these kind of pressures exist everywhere and especially in public services where expectations are high, but resources low. In education, one of the biggest pressures comes from Ofsted and there has been a lot of coverage recently of the new Head of Ofsted who has started work this month. Already, he is beginning to reassure schools that Ofsted’s approach is going to be more empathetic to some of the pressures and issues I have mentioned above. Let’s hope that is the case. Closing the gap between levels of accountability and the ability to take responsibility would be a welcome way to reduce the pressure on schools, and to solving the long-term problem of recruiting and retaining teachers.
On a loosely-related subject, it was great to see such a high turnout last night for our Year 11 Success Evening. The hall and canteen were packed whilst students and parents/carers waited patiently to speak to Heads of Department and other leaders about how best to support their child in the final weeks before the exams start. It was great to see so much responsibility being taken on all sides and a real boost for staff to see such high levels of engagement and support. Thank you to those that attended and to my staff who met with parents but who also organised and set up the event. It was great work.
Similarly, Year 11 students have also been attending Trust-led revision classes this week, held at the University of Hull. One cohort went out on Tuesday and other goes out on Monday. Lessons had been planned collaboratively by teachers across our schools and the feedback from the students was really positive with some wishing they could do it every week! Thanks again to all who supported this.
After a busy and cold week, I’m looking forward to a rest this weekend. I have some A Level Mock Exam Papers to mark and an outstanding list of unfinished work to complete but I will make sure there is time for rest too. I’m told by my kids that I am taking them to the cinema tomorrow afternoon and that we’re watching ‘Wonka’. I don’t object; life is much easier when I’m told what to do on a weekend.
Whatever you are doing, enjoy it and thank you for your support.