Headteachers: take back control of school audit culture!

The endless papertrails modern school life seemingly requires are now actively making things worse for our overworked teachers. Becky Allen explains how to change all that Teaching should be the best job in the world. It has all the components of a satisfying profession: autonomy, impact, purpose and a sense of human connection. So why are teachers leaving in droves?

I believe one of the reasons is the high-stakes audit and accountability culture that undermines so many teachers’ senses of autonomy and purpose.
It’s entirely understandable why it’s come to this.

Required to prove at a moment’s notice that they know their schools’ strengths and weaknesses, senior leadership teams develop a cascade of policies to mirror what kind of evidence they reckon Ofsted will be looking for. This audit culture means that, in many schools, the teacher no longer gets to decide how to prepare and deliver lessons, mark pupils’ work, or assess and record learning.

But this audit culture has displaced a culture of trust in schools.

And it hasn’t improved educational standards, not least because auditing teaching and learning isn’t really possible. The links between what we observe through auditing activities and the quality of learning is simply unproven.

Auditing isn’t necessary for talented, well-motivated teachers

Auditing isn’t necessary for talented, well-motivated teachers, and in fact it can undermine their intrinsic motivation, thereby making things worse. Auditing doesn’t work for weak teachers who lack the capacity to improve or who don’t care. In fact, it only works for the small subset of teachers who are a little bit lazy and unfocused but who with hard-edged accountability will push themselves to get on with their work.

I don’t want to be dismissive of teacher underperformance. Where it happens it literally wastes days or years of children’s lives. But my fear is that, in trying to fix this problem, we have made life intolerable for those who were always doing a great job.

So many systems of control in schools today presume that we have the scientific evidence to support top-down policies telling teachers how they should teach. I wish we did, but we simply don’t.

Teaching remains a complex and poorly understood endeavour, so we need it to be a prestigious profession with competitive entry and sufficient supply, so headteachers are able find staff in whom they have confidence. We need teachers who thrive in trust cultures, rather than those who rely on systems of control.
The following points, therefore, make up my call to school leaders.

Take control of the audit culture

You can survive an Ofsted inspection while implementing autonomy-supportive leadership, but only if you take care how you do it. First, educate yourself and make an official plan to show you are purposively making management changes. Second, do this as part of a gang with other heads – there is safety in numbers and it makes it look like a “proper” programme. Third, do it scientifically so that you can show Ofsted how you are measuring the impact of your changes on workload, teacher satisfaction and time freed for development activities.
Reduce workload in a purposeful way

Carry out an experiment for a couple of weeks. Set school hours (e.g. 8am – 4:30pm) outside of which teachers aren’t allowed to do any work. This will allow you to reappraise which parts of their job are essential and which can be ditched.

Read the Ofsted Myths to devise workload-saving changes to school practice that are consistent with the current inspection framework.
Better triage of underperforming teachers

Stop managing everyone the same way: give professional autonomy to your good teachers and triage the others appropriately. Could this teacher get better with a lot of support? Then give them the support they need. Another teacher can’t or won’t get better with a lot of support? Then create the audit trail to begin capability procedures.
Teacher shortages make it easier than ever for teachers to move schools. Teachers can and should seek out working cultures that promote autonomy so they feel fulfilled at work. Make sure your own teachers can find this in your school so they don’t seek it elsewhere.

Rebecca Allen is Director of the Centre for Education Improvement Science at the UCL Institute of Education

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

One comment

  1. Nick Martin

    Really interesting article Becky – my deputy and I had the exact same conversation this week. You’ve really helped to move our thinking forward in this area. Thank you