At our recent summit I attended a great workshop where Professor Becky Allen outlined the problem so clearly: it is us who have allowed this to happen – we have been the agents through which this awful audit culture has taken a grip in our schools. It isn’t our fault necessarily; but it is certainly our problem! And, as we have been the agents through which this was allowed to get a grip, we must the ones to dismantle it.
Headship was traditionally described as a lonely job; I have to confess I never found it so, but it is very, very exposed. The pernicious accountability system as it has developed over the years has put headteachers under more and more pressure to be able to, at the drop of a hat, give others assurance of the effectiveness of every teaching and learning exchange within the school. (Even writing that sentence has made my jaw drop.) The only way to feel able to do this is has led to the very worst kind of audit culture which disproportionately hits schools facing challenging circumstances. The truth is, as long as student outcomes look strong there is little challenge; but the endless requirement for more and more monitoring and data drops, and progress checks and QA processes for those headteachers and schools most in need of the time and space to actually improve, rather than justify, is eye-watering.
If we change the way we look at things; then the things we see begin to change. A little over a year ago I took on a new role and I have been slowly trying to change the way we look at things starting with data and assessment. Traditionally, when we ask teachers to give us data on a class, everyone involved in that data exchange and information (student, teacher, subject leader, senior leader, headteacher, governor) has assumed that this is about measuring students and it is for reporting upwards to inform. We are working on fundamentally changing this assumption. The purpose of all forms of data are to assess our own effectiveness and improve what we do as educators. Data as an instrument of improvement rather than audit, report and justify.
We are seeing that as teachers and subject leaders begin to look at data this way a number of things happen:
· Data collection points and reporting become less important than the conversations taking place between teachers and subject leaders, subject leaders and senior staff, heads and governors.
· Teachers and subject leaders are empowered to change the organisation of learning and pedagogy in response to what data is telling them about their effectiveness.
· We start to see some green shoots of a new culture: empowerment rather than paralysis, and creativity rather than drudgery.
· Marking seems like a long time ago as teachers are assessing their own effectiveness not individual students, with whole class feedback sheets driving improved planning and delivery.
· Workload becomes about planning and pedagogy, not mind-numbing tasks to provide an audit trail.
We are beginning to develop a culture of ‘working to be better at what we do’ rather than ‘trying to look as though we are good’. It is early days and cultural change takes time. I have had colleagues look at me as if they want to say ‘Sir Humphrey-like’ – “This is a very courageous course of action, Executive Principal”. But we have to change the culture; we have to look at things differently, particularly in schools where headteachers and teachers are continuously under the most pressure. The paralysis and panic caused by audit culture has to stop.
Our mantra is “Accelerating progress and reducing workload”. The message we give out is “if something doesn’t do both of these we are not playing”.
Ros McMullen is Executive Principal of Midland Academies Trust and a founding member of @headsroundtable. She tweets @RosMcM