The Black Box Between Autonomy and Accountability

Posted on October 2, 2013


This blogpost is a write-up of the notes Hélène Galdin-O’Shea and I wrote to help us in our presentation to the Labour TeachMeet event on the fringe of the 2013 Labour Party Conference. The TeachMeet-style event, organised by Labour Teachers and hosted by Tom Sherrington and Chris Waugh in Brighton on 21st September, was an attempt to show the now defunct Stephen Twigg how the teaching profession is more than ready to lead itself and that top-down, command and control approach to education policy needs to become a thing of the past.

You can watch the presentation here.

Here is the text that underpinned our presentation.

We began by showing this image of Arnstein’s ‘Ladder of Participation’ and a recent equivalent of it side-by-side.


We argued that the teaching profession (including school leadership) are, at present, only halfway up this ladder at best and are stuck at the tokenistic participation rung most of the time. We have been offered a vision of empowered autonomy but in reality it is still tokenistic because there is still too much of a top-down approach; of ‘consultative participation’, as demonstrated by the tinkering to GCSE accountability that has happened in recent months and days. Instead we are arguing for a bottom-up, teacher-driven, truly ‘collaborative participation’ in all areas of education policy.

The Black Box


This slide shows what we believe the problem is. The current government, and probably the future government, will continue to talk about teacher autonomy and accountability as key drivers of policy. But politicians perceive a direct link and causal relationship between these two concepts: “make them autonomous and they’ll be accountable” and/or “make them accountable and they’ll be autonomous”.

This approach is underpinned by a myth amongst the political class (including many political commentators) that teachers are scared of accountability. We are not! We stand up in front of children every day, to whom we are accountable. We interact with colleagues in the staff room, to whom we are accountable. We present to and meet with parents, to whom we are accountable. We work closely with the diverse elements our local communities, to whom we are accountable. And we would argue that this is ‘authentic accountability’, in contrast to the ‘populist accountability’ that shapes much of government educational policy.

As a result of this disconnect between autonomy and ‘authentic accountability’ there has emerged a huge ‘black box’ of systems and processes around teaching that stifles autonomy and skews accountability. In our presentation we identified some of these threats that stand in the way, explained how teachers are using their emergent autonomy to shed light on and in the ‘black box’ and suggested possible policy solutions towards fostering a more ‘collaborative participation’ in educational matters.

Training & CPD

The first three aspects of the ‘black box’ we have identified all appear to be about giving teachers autonomy. The first of these is training and professional development. Even though the government has rightly recognised that the National Strategies have run their course, in-service training in many schools is still very top-down. We recognise that the strategies brought a welcome focus on pedagogy as a key driver of professional development, but their “one size fits all” nature still casts a shadow and, all too often, CPD delivered in schools does not meet the needs of teachers as autonomous individuals.

For example, consultants are brought from outside, keen to deliver research-poor, strategies-lite approaches that are not contextualised to the school, let alone the individual teachers. Very much like the National Strategies these approaches seek to impose a set way of teaching, possibly because many of these ‘experts’ are those who used to deliver the strategies who have been ‘set free’ by shrunken local authorities.

Increasingly, however, teachers who have been frustrated by years of these top-down initiatives are behaving entirely autonomously and taking to social networks, such as twitter and blogsites, in order to share these frustrations and look for alternatives. As a result a real drive to proactively further their own professional development and take others with them is emerging. Teachers voluntarily use their own time to share and reflect on their practice independently of their school. They offer their resources to others for free, encouraging virtual colleagues to adapt them to their own respective contexts.

These enthusiastic practitioners then want to meet their like-minded (and not so like-minded) virtual colleagues in order to extend this professional dialogue in the real world. The proliferation of TeachMeets is a clear indication of the profession’s appetite for bottom-up CPD. It is not unusual to overhear on twitter that a colleague has learnt more in one year of tweets and blogs than in ten years of INSETs.

Though a fantastic source of inspiration, the TeachMeet format can be outgrown quite quickly though and, as a result, teachers have taken it upon themselves to put together conferences that lead to more focused, richer, in-depth conversations. These Saturday events are often free to attend or are offered at a fraction of the cost of consultant-led weekday training.

As these events grow in number and quality, teachers’ inherent self-accountability leads them to challenge that which has been uncritically accepted before. They want to collaborate and develop action-research projects and often they are keen to bring their school colleagues, including members of SLT, with them in their endeavour. In fact, many schools are already reviewing the way CPD is delivered, with a focus on teacher-led training.

We would urge politicians to get behind this emergent teacher autonomy by supporting these conferences and TeachMeets in whatever what they can, to stop telling is how to teach and, ind doing so, let us reclaim our professionalism.

Alliances & Chains


One of the most striking cases of this government giving schools more autonomy has been the rush to academisation and the consequent collapse of local authorities as the ‘middle tier’ of system accountability. These structure are not coming back. In their place we have seen the creation of 400 Teaching School Alliances (there will be 500 by the end of the Parliament) based on the success of the London Challenge. Added into this mix is the rapid growth of Academy Chains, with their strong central ethos and corporate approach to all aspects of school life, and hard federations between small numbers of schools into local ‘families’ under an Executive Principal.

All of these are celebrated as examples of autonomy within the system, but in many cases can be seen as little more than the logical conclusion of top-down accountability. In these cases schools are forced into collaboration, often with supposedly stronger schools that are guilty of imposing their own ways of doing things with scant regard for what might already be working well in the ‘weaker’ schools. Sometimes these lead schools have a nakedly political and self-aggrandising agenda to be seen as the ‘first among equals’, and to reap the rewards of this position in the form of ministerial patronage and recognition by the honours system.

Within the Teaching School movement, however, is the potential for genuinely teacher-led, and teacher to teacher, improvement mechanisms. Specialist Leaders of Education (SLEs) could be the footsoldiers of the programmes and support delivered by these alliances rather than the Headteacher-Generals, but schools have to meet the costs of releasing them and avoid making them peripheral to the process.

Another area where the Teaching School movement offers great hope for the growth true autonomy for teachers is in research and development. But of the ‘Big 6’ elements of alliance delivery, R&D is the sixth, is very much at the bottom of the list for many Teaching Schools and is being driven by priorities that emerge from the government, not from the profession. An example of this is the current “Test and Learn” approach to research into closing the gap; an accountability-heavy element of raising achievement that may not resonate with the work of teachers in the classroom.

Politicians need to expect much more of Teaching School Alliances in the provision of effective classroom-focused and teacher-led R&D that stretches across their partner schools. They also need to ensure that all elements of system improvement in this emergent ‘middle tier’ are driven by leaders at all levels within schools by providing the support for a developing national network of SLEs and expecting much more of alliances in deploying them to work with colleagues in other schools.



The third component of our ‘black box’ that seems to be more about autonomy than accountability is research. We believe that there needs to be a decentralisation of research away from the DfE and towards organisations, such as the Teacher Development Trust, that are part of an emerging architecture to connect schools with the principles, skills and methods of high quality research. The main problem that has led us to see this as part of the ‘black box’ is that there is a separation between schools and universities that is too big, a fact compounded by the fact that they sit in separate Whitehall departments.

The most worrying side-effect of this separation at governmental and institutional level is that the two sectors are being shepherded into a potentially fraught conflict over funding for PGCE and School Direct placements. And yet the recent ResearchED conference, and the proliferation of positive blogposts that followed it, highlighted a genuine appetite from both sectors for ‘collaborative participation’.

In order to ensure this the government of the future should give free access to research publications to all academic institutions, including schools. Further to this it should seek to reward schools that are engaged in effective research, particularly where that involved collaboration with other schools, and it should financially support reciprocal secondments between staff at universities and schools. This final suggestion would ensure that the university-based colleagues can sharpen their classroom skills and understanding of the day-to-day challenges facing school, whilst school-based colleagues could develop a more theoretical and practical understanding of the methodology of highly effective research.

Exam Boards


The first of the three components of our ‘black box’ between autonomy and accountability that are more aligned with the latter is the exam system within the UK. Secondary schools are paying upwards of £100,000 per year to these organisations, a sum that is buying teachers and school leaders an awful lot of opacity. And yet school accountability largely rests upon the performance of these organisations. As we move towards coursework-free linear assessment, this places us entirely at the mercy of what are, frankly, very dubious processes (and if you are surprised by this you have missed one of the worst-kept secrets in education).

Not only should ministers for education in the future challenge the fees paid by schools and received by exam boards, they should also take significant steps to ensure that the spending of this public money is worth it.

With the routinised scanning of student exam scripts and online marking processes introduced by exam boards to save money, there is absolutely no reason why these boards cannot follow the lead of Tescos and Amazon and be required to offer a tracking service for schools and teachers at all points in the marking of scripts. Instead, at present, we pay for the secretive marking process and pay again to recall papers when we suspect that they have not been marked properly. The ability to track marking, and throw light on this element of the ‘black box’ would significantly empower school staff, helping them use their autonomy to learn from the marking process and helping them secure accountability by challenging the exam boards when poor practice is discovered.

Further to this, it is our belief that such a move would indeed flag up a disturbing amount of poor practice and, to this end, we also believe that whoever is the party of government after the next election needs to look at instigating a root-and-branch overhaul of external assessment processes in the UK. The Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIEA) has put forward the idea that there should be a formally-accredited, highly accountable Chartered Assessor in every school whose role it is to quality assure the internal assessment of student work by schools. External marking of assessments would, in this autonomy-rich model, be used to ensure accountability for internal marking by randomly sampling the attainment of students. This is by far a more empowering, but more to the point, sustainable approach to assessment than the badly creaking system we currently have.

Performance Related Pay


Although PRP is presented by government as recognising the success of effectively autonomous teachers, it is our view (and the view of most of the profession) that it is yet another accountability threat. Research into its efficacy is mixed at best and scathing at worst.

It divides teachers. Above all of its faults, it is impossible to accurately apportion credit or blame for students’ outcomes on individual teachers. As a result it could poison relationships within staff rooms if teachers seek out the most able or best-behaved classes. It would be a highly subjective process, with those with the closest relationships with their leadership teams standing to benefit the most.

Quite frankly, there is a need for ministers to recognise that the education of children is a collaborative endeavour that reaches well beyond schools and, as such we need pay mechanisms that pull us together rather than push us apart. Any future Labour government needs to look at its history and reclaim its commitment to fairness, community and cooperation and steer us away from the self-destructive path of ‘populist accountability’ that performance related pay leads us down.



Do we really need to say anything about the accountability threat posed by Ofsted? The very word strikes fear into many leaders and teachers. On the positive side we now have a Chief Inspector who speaks the language of the autonomous teacher who ought to be able to teach as they wish as long as it is effective. However, inspection teams are notoriously inconsistent on the ground, slow to take up his message and often comprised of consultants who make significant sums of money preparing schools for inspection. The result of this, and the continued publication of inspection reports condemning certain teaching practices, school leaders are still eager to second-guess “what Ofsted want” and often seek to replicate inspection processes, often under the name ‘mocksted’ or ‘insted’: a top-down process of fear spreading.

We believe that the government should make it a condition of service that registered Ofsted inspectors are forbidden from making money ‘on the side’ by offering consultation on the Ofsted process. We also suggest that Ofsted should be required to publish all of the notes made by inspectors about lessons they have observed and meeting that they have held so that school leaders and teachers can use their autonomy to challenge and overturn inaccurate judgments and learn from the precise feedback of accurate ones.

Finally, dare we even suggest that Sam Freedman was right in a recent blogpost in which he suggested that the only way of eliminating references to a preferred style of teaching would be to ensure that inspectors only report on the quality of learning taking place in lessons they observe. After all, so long as good learning is happening, who cares what methods autonomous teachers use in order to achieve this?

Enlightening the Black Box


In summary, what we are advocating is that there is a concept that needs to be added to the twin aims of the current government of ‘teacher autonomy’ and ‘teacher accountability’, and that is ‘teacher empowerment’ which a future government must do everything in its power to facilitate. Unless light is shed on the mystifying elements of the ‘black box’ we have exemplified today then there will continue to be a ‘missing link’ and autonomy will be little more than a rhetorical fig leaf on the body of accountability.

A truly bottom-up approach is one that starts with the recognition that teachers (including school leaders) are autonomous professionals, but recognises that they need to be empowered in this autonomy by all the agencies that work with them, especially government. Thus empowered, teachers will be better equipped to meet the more transparent and authentic accountability requirements that we have long since accepted as part of our role.

It has been a rocky relationship between policy-makers and the teaching profession in the last quarter of a century. Teachers have been, in the main, compliant to the ‘populist accountability’ agenda and have delivered on a wide range of Trojan Horse policies and initiatives down these years. What Michael Gove has done, wittingly or unwittingly, is release the autonomy genie from out of the bottle with two key consequences: we won’t let it go back in and we want many more than three wishes from it. Trojan Mouse teachers and leaders are keen to exercise this autonomy to its fullest and are prepared to challenge those elements of ‘populist accountability’ that have gone unchecked for far too long. The profession is finding its confidence once more, is clearing its throat and getting ready to roar. We hope the politicians charged with oversight of the education system are ready to hear us.