In teachers we (absolutely must) trust...

Written by: Ben Solly | Published:
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Thankyou so much for this. Has reinforced so much of what I believe about leadership but it is ...

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Do we have a crisis of trust in teaching? As a senior leader, do you trust your teachers? As a teacher, do you feel trusted? Principal Ben Solly looks at why we must place trust at the heart of our schools – and how we can do it...


“The best way to run a business is to trust your colleagues with the freedom to do their job in the way they know best.” Sir John Timpson.

In 2018, Ipsos MORI revealed that teachers are the third most trusted profession in Britain, with only doctors and nurses ranking higher. An impressively high proportion (89 per cent) of the respondents in the poll purported that teachers, as a profession, are a trustworthy bunch.

This contrasts with a 2018 Ofsted survey, which found that 62 per cent of teachers believed that they were not trusted by society. Similarly, in the 2019 annual NASUWT survey, 56 per cent of teachers said they did not feel empowered at school, with 59 per cent not believing their opinions to be valued by school leaders.

We have a problem here. It appears that the general public does trust teachers, but more than half of teachers believe they are actually not trusted by society and that their opinions are not valued by senior leaders.

The quote from Sir John Timpson resonates strongly with me as a school leader, and I listened to his son and successor, James Timpson, recently on the High Performance podcast, where he passionately expounded his belief that when we hire the right people, with the right attitude, we should give them trust and autonomy in abundance if we want our organisations to flourish.

So why is it then that teachers do not feel trusted? Why is it that many schools operate with what David Didau (2020) has coined a deficit model of school accountability? He states: “The deficit model assumes all would be well if only teachers and leaders were more motivated, worked harder or were somehow ‘better’ in some undetermined way. Undesirable outcomes are due to someone’s bad faith, incompetence or lack of skill.

“According to this way of thinking, problems will be solved if these deficits can be addressed in some way. Deficits are dealt with by supplying more information and imposing stricter parameters, tighter deadlines and clearer consequences. If only we could establish responsibility, apportion blame and force everyone into line, success would be guaranteed.”

A far more sensible solution is for schools to operate with a “surplus model”, in which teachers are inherently trusted. In the surplus model, Didau argues the following: “Trust is reciprocal and that autonomy is earned. Instead of resulting in ever tighter accountability, such a model produces greater trust. And, when teachers are trusted to be their best, when they are acknowledged as knowing more about teaching their subjects to their students in their classrooms, then they are allowed to select solutions that may be far better than those chosen by less knowledgeable leaders.

“The more trust and responsibility teachers are given, the more they are empowered to find out what might be more effective, and the more likely they are to achieve mastery.”


Why do we have a trust issue?

I have never met a school leader or teacher who does not want to be held accountable for the responsibilities they hold. As headteachers, we are the custodians of our schools for a relatively short period of time in the grand scheme of things, but during that time we are the ones entrusted to keep young people safe and ensure they receive a great education.

The issue is, however, that the high-stakes, high-accountability environment of the English education system has led to perverse incentives and a zero-sum game which inevitably incurs winners and losers, and in which a third of young people will also fail to achieve a “good” GCSE grade in English and maths thanks to our system of comparable outcomes (Barton, 2019).

This pressure cooker system creates the conditions for headteachers that are akin to those of a Premier League football manager and this, sadly, often filters through to teachers. The end result is that in the pursuit of ever-improving examination outcomes, deficit models of accountability are used in schools and subsequently a culture of fear can pervade, rather than a culture of trust.


What happens if we don’t trust teachers?

If we don’t trust teachers, many will simply walk away from the profession. This is, of course, not news, and we have been combating a recruitment and retention problem for some time. Schools with a toxic culture, where teachers are not trusted and oppressive deficit models of accountability are implemented will most certainly burn teachers out and drive them from the profession.

The 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) identified that teachers are working longer hours than when previously surveyed in 2013, with 59 per cent of teachers citing their workload as unmanageable.

I believe that much of this workload in schools is a result of processes of quality assurance which are onerous, “top-down”, judgemental, often box-ticking exercises that only exist because of the pressures incurred by a desire to enhance an accountability measure.

If school league tables did not exist, if Ofsted did not issue a blunt judgemental category to summarise a school’s provision, if we weren’t held at the tyranny of the zero-sum game, would we genuinely engage in the same degree of checking, checking and more checking, just to see if teachers are doing their jobs properly?

I think that as a profession we have to be much better than that. We have to treat teachers with more professional respect, create systems in which they are trusted and develop processes that are iterative and developmental, rather than despotic and judgemental. Of all the features within a school, the quality of teaching has the greatest impact on student achievements.

In fact, Eric Hanushek, from Stanford University, purports that “no other attribute of schools come close” in this regard. If we look at the countries with the highest performance on PISA, we see that the nations exhibiting the greatest trust in their teachers are the nations that have made the greatest effort to improve the quality of their teachers (Sahlberg& Walker, 2021).

We have to ask ourselves the question then, how are we going to get the best out of our teachers? My view on this, as a headteacher, is that it is my job to remove all of the barriers, red-tape and bureaucracy from the professional lives of teachers, so that they can deliver the curriculum in the most effective way.

I believe that I am more likely to achieve this by supporting teachers to be professionally curious and constantly engaged with making incremental improvements to their practice, rather than continually judging them or distributing blunt labels based on extremely poor proxies for judging teacher quality. If we want our teachers to thrive professionally, we have to create the conditions in which thriving is possible.


What happens if we don’t trust middle leaders?

"You don’t lead by hitting people over the head — that’s assault, not leadership." Dwight Eisenhower

Middle leaders are the engine rooms of our schools and play a critical role across many aspects of school life. However, they are often given an impossible job because they have very limited autonomy but are still held accountable for outcomes. A more sensible approach to take with middle leaders is to adopt what I called a “Triple A” distributed leadership model.

Middle leaders within the Triple A model are given the autonomy to drive improvements in their areas of responsibility, they are given the authority to make key decisions and they are accountable for the outcomes. For this approach to work effectively, the middle leaders must of course be capable, motivated and working within the values and expectations of the school.

By allowing a middle leader to develop their provision and their team using the Triple A model, we are giving talented and motivated people the opportunity to develop as leaders in an authentic and sustainable way. However, the accountability must of course, be intelligent, not driven by invalid and impossible data targets, or solely focused on an inspection framework – the parameters should be developmental, achievable and agreed.

I have heard many times that great leaders grow other leaders. I like to think of this as a leadership legacy. I often ask myself, if I left the school tomorrow, would it continue to grow and improve in my absence? Have I developed others within the organisation, who will take the school to the next level? Have I created an iterative and developmental culture where everyone is determined to learn, grow and improve each day?

Or would the school crash and burn if I left because I have held everything too close to myself and not enabled others to develop? In schools where deficit models of accountability exist, I think that there is too much emphasis on top-down judgemental processes, and not only can this cause resentment and distrust, it also does not allow teachers and leaders to engage in genuine and authentic professional growth.

As John Tomsett so eloquently writes, in his book This much I know about love over fear: Creating a culture for truly great teaching (2015), if we are to create a culture in schools that enables truly great teaching to happen, then we need to assume that every teacher wants to improve their teaching. We should apply the same principles to our middle leaders and therefore it is incumbent upon senior leaders to create the conditions where our heads of department and pastoral leaders can develop, grow and improve.


Trust, respect and integrity

How can we develop sensible accountability processes in school that are based on trust, respect and integrity?

It would be negligent of school leaders to simply put blind faith in their colleagues and allow everyone to work with complete freedom and without any strategic direction. However, at the polar opposite end of this trust continuum, lies the repressive, judgemental, deficit model that implies no teachers can be trusted and all teaching staff require constant checking, monitoring and measuring.

School leaders can shape sensible accountability processes based on trust and professional respect, but which also allow for standards to be monitored and improved through an iterative process.

Since becoming a headteacher, I have tried to create systems in school that work for teachers rather than against them. Tom Rees, in his book Wholesome Leadership (2018), suggests that “any attempts to improve processes such as lesson observations or appraisal meetings are undermined in a culture built of fear, coercion or transactional ‘carrot and stick’ consequences”.

This aligns with what I have observed during my career. When implemented in a deficit model of accountability, processes such as performance-related pay, performance management, lesson observations, department inspections etc have absolutely no impact on supporting teachers to improve and simply exist to judge or measure teachers.

Instead, I have used the Mary Myatt principle of High Challenge, Low Threat (from her 2016 book of the same title) to develop systems in school that allow teachers and leaders to evaluate the quality of their work, own their improvement strategies and shape their career pathway, all within a culture that is supportive and developmental.

Myatt states that “top leaders create the conditions where critical guidance is not only accepted, it is expected”, and I have taken this assertion to flip the systems within our education system and create processes that actually make a difference to our school improving.

  • Instead of performance management, where teachers have unrealistic data targets for examination groups they only teach for one year, we have Personal Improvement Planning, where colleagues identify aspects of their practice they want to develop.
  • Instead of performance-related pay, we assume that all colleagues will progress through the pay spine if they are meeting the Teachers’ Standards and the key elements of their job description.
  • Instead of judging teacher quality through lesson observations, we have non-judgemental Developmental Lesson Observations that are focused on coaching.
  • Instead of “mocksteds” or department inspections, we have developed a Department Self Review process that enables our middle leaders to evaluate the impact of their provision, before identifying and owning the priorities for improvement.


Concluding thoughts

In his excellent foreword to Sahlberg and Walker’s book In Teachers We Trust (2021), Professor Andy Hargreaves tells us that “trust is not a privilege, it is, in a way, a human right – at least until that trust is seriously broken by cheating, theft or violence”.

He argues that trusting our teachers is “an essential ingredient of educational excellence and wellbeing – not so teachers can just teach as they wish, or be left completely alone, but so they can work together as qualified professionals for the children they come to understand and know best”.

These words resonate profoundly with me and I wonder what the conditions for teachers could be like in this country if the education system adopted such a mindset.

Ultimately, a leader has to understand that they cannot do everything alone. They have to delegate and empower others within their organisation to lead, make mistakes, learn and grow. All of this requires trust.

Research shows that top-down accountability systems have secured few successes in educational improvement anywhere in the world (Sahlberg& Walker, 2021). It begs the question then, why is it that teachers are not trusted?

I believe strongly that there has never been a better opportunity, or more important time in which the profession should kick back at top-down accountability and reclaim professional respect for one another. We should trust that our colleagues are motivated to continually learn. We should trust that they will do their best for the young people in our schools.

We should create the conditions in our schools that, to use John Tomsett’s words, are more aligned to love than fear (2015). We should create systems that allow teachers to develop and grow, but which also place trust inherently at the centre of the process. Quite simply, we should trust teachers.

Trusting teachers is a good bet for improving schools, and if we can develop a school culture in which teachers are respected, trusted, and held accountable through fair and intelligent systems, then we are able to begin improving our educational provision for young people in an authentic and sustainable way.

  • Ben Solly is the headteacher of Uppingham Community College in Rutland. Read his previous articles, blogs and other contributions to SecEd via https://bit.ly/seced-solly


Further information & resources

  • Barton: The forgotten third, SecEd, October 2019: https://bit.ly/2xXO3WO
  • Didau: The surplus model of school improvement, blog entry, November 2020: https://bit.ly/3oloepj
  • Hargreaves: High Performance Podcast: James Timpson, Series Four: https://bit.ly/2RWuE1W
  • TALIS: TALIS Results: Teachers and School Leaders as Lifelong Learners and Valued Professionals, 2018: www.oecd.org/education/talis/
  • Sahlberg & Walker: In Teachers We Trust: The Finnish way to world-class schools, WW Norton, March 2021.
  • Solly: Creating an effective CPD culture across your school, SecEd Best Practice Focus, November 2020: https://bit.ly/2QmCp0E
  • SecEd: Strategic school leadership, SecEd Best Practice Focus, May 2021: https://bit.ly/3hTupzu


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Thankyou so much for this. Has reinforced so much of what I believe about leadership but it is sometimes difficult to swim against the tide
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