The first meeting of the SSAT Vision 2040 group was characterised by an enthusiasm that took discussion and debate far away from talk of a depressing education landscape, into the realms of what solutions are attainable and what more we can do together as a profession and to support one another.
The group has been set up by SSAT to engage in research, share practice and involve colleagues and students in leading the agenda on education and schooling as we move towards 2040.
Chaired by Tom Sherrington, headteacher of King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford, the group consists of leaders and practitioners who applied to join. There were conflicting views and opinions, healthy debate, a commitment to action and tangible outcomes under four themes – teaching and learning, professional capital, principled curriculum design, and accountability.
The debates around accountability were realistic and honest, but different. Different because the focus was on embracing accountability as a positive driver for improvement and change rather than as oppressive. We talked about the benefits of positive accountability before talking about the challenges that our current accountability structures bring.
Two members of the group reflected on experiences in their schools, both linked to recent Ofsted inspections. Notably, both highlighted their moral drivers and their focus on getting the best for their students above the process and dynamics of the inspection. Rachel Hudson, deputy headteacher at Neston High in Cheshire, said: “When I reflect on what it is that drives us forward, it’s our moral purpose – consideration of what is right for our context, for our students, to meet their needs and those of the community as we move into a future which is difficult to predict.”
Rosanna Raimato, deputy head of Bradley Stoke Community School in South Gloucestershire, added: “We have to focus on knowing our schools as well as we possibly can, to involve everyone in this process, and to empower each individual to strive for the very best. We need collegiality in defining what needs to improve and how we are going to do it. We need to keep excellence, enthusiasm and energy in teaching and learning.”
As a group, we debated the four key relationships with accountability which had been explored by former Ofsted chief Christine Gilbert at SSAT’s recent Redesigning Schooling symposia (see further information). These were:
• Moral accountability (to students/parents/the community).
• Professional accountability (to colleagues).
• Contractual accountability (to employers/government).
• Market accountability (to the market).
We questioned why it can be possible for colleagues to be willingly and happily focused on their moral and professional accountabilities, but for the contractual accountabilities to sit so heavily and prominently.
Blogs, education websites and tweets have been lively with accounts of schools paralysed by the anticipation of an inspection and reports of poor experiences when the visit takes place.
The stories shared tell us that for schools striving to do better, but not yet far enough along the journey to satisfy the framework, the spectre of being forced to “academise” looms large and makes them feel disempowered to the point of resignation to their fate.
So what is it that has enabled leaders like Ms Hudson to focus their energies on what really matters? What motivates colleagues to have the confidence to be driven by their moral and professional accountabilities?
The word confidence came up repeatedly – as it has throughout the Redesigning Schooling campaign. We questioned whether confidence is the luxury of the “outstanding” school, which can take Ofsted in its stride because its data stacks up.
But then we cited examples where this isn’t the case; where schools on their journey to “good”, who have borne the burden of “notice to improve”, can show the same confidence.
We reflected on some specifics – for example, how had Bradley Stoke as a school channelled its energies?
Our moral compass is set on the course that will give our students the most positive experiences and outcomes on a daily basis.
Our language is about teaching and learning – we openly debate and talk about what “rapid and sustained improvement” is, about marking and feedback, and what is outstanding and good practice.
We have created a strong culture of trust with positive accountability and evaluation as part of everyday life.
We involve students, staff and parents in continuously celebrating what we do well and seeking out what we could do better. We ask them to find the solutions and to show each other what they have found.
We demystify data and ask staff to tell us the story behind it.
Meanwhile, Ms Hudson talked of the moral purpose and professional integrity behind Neston “telling their story” – a point emphasised by Ms Gilbert during her symposium when she said of the school leaders identified in the Ofsted report Twelve Outstanding Secondary Schools (2009): “These heads are excellent story-tellers – they develop an inclusive narrative for the school that links vision, moral purpose, direction of travel and action.”
But can we have confident, positive accountability in our schools? We reached a consensus that it isn’t easy, but it is possible. This mirrors feedback collated from the Redesigning Schooling symposia – we can achieve this when we are driven by our moral and professional accountabilities.
A point made by headteacher Geoff Barton in his blog (http://twitter.com/RealGeoffBarton): “The dementors may be circling at the gates, but perhaps we need to remind ourselves more regularly and more forcefully who is really in control, who and what really matters in our schools, and what ‘real’ education is all about.”
We reflected that there is no limit to what we can do to give the students in our schools the very best we can and there is much we can do in developing confidence across the profession to build effective collaborations and embrace positive accountability; ideally collective responsibility for our moral and professional accountabilities.
It is hard work, though, keeping this as our priority, especially in a school with deep challenges where many need to be convinced that there is any hope of determining your own fate.
We know our own schools better than anyone else, and knowledge is power. Even if we know that the outcomes of external accountability are going to be challenging, a school full of people trying to make things better is an empowered school.
What can be said, other than that positive accountability is a culture worth creating in our own schools and across schools? How could it not be?
Kirstie Andrew-Power is head of membership at SSAT and Rosanna Raimato is deputy head at Bradley Stoke Community School in South Gloucestershire.