Intelligent Accountability: Creating the conditions for teachers to thrive

I have never been so excited while reading a teaching book!

For the first time, I felt like I wasn’t alone – that someone else ‘got it’. I started teaching in 2010. From what I can gather this was pretty much around the ‘peak bullsh*t’ phase in teacher training where the emphasis was on writing thousand-word lesson plans and incorporating a bunch of untested and unverified pseudoscience concepts into the classroom.

It was and still is, maddening. Nothing makes a teacher's blood boil more than those memories of having expertly written lesson plans – but nothing to teach with as the kids came piling through the door. If only some of that time you’d spent writing up fictional lesson plans had been spent gathering, creating and sequencing resources for your students – they might actually learn something – and taxpayers' money – and the lives of teachers wouldn’t have been wasted on such a gross scale.

Grumble over.

Go to for the video and presentation to go with this review of David Didau’s excellent book. It is essentially my bible from now on. I might have it framed in my room and I’ll just point to it whenever SLT come in with another absurd request that will harm the student’s learning. If and when I am in their shoes – I’ll not make the same mistakes, regardless of whatever pressures they might feel they’re under to force mistake upon mistake on their staff.

Below are my highlighted notes from the Kindle edition. At about 3% of the book, this should be fairly legit and doesn’t go against any copyright. But as I say, go to the video for more grumbling 😊

Notes and highlights for

Intelligent Accountability: Creating the conditions for teachers to thrive

Didau, David


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Instead of doing a few things well , we do a little bit of everything poorly .

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explain the research findings which show that , on the whole , people prefer fair inequality to unfair equality .

Chapter 1: Why we need to embrace ignorance and learn to love uncertainty

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truth is that no one person can ever know enough to effectively run a school . The knowledge you need will be distributed among everyone who works within your school , and there will be pockets of expertise in every department and year team . If you restrict your collective knowledge to only those in senior leadership positions , your decisions will always be less intelligent than they could have been had you tapped the collective knowledge of the entire school community .

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On the whole , we prefer our leaders to be wrong rather than unsure . We punish those who admit ignorance and are much happier when they’re decisive , confident … and mistaken .

Chapter 4: Accountability

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Teachers – and school leaders – do need to be held to account for their decisions , but it’s also true that both teachers and school leaders need the freedom to experiment and innovate if they are to be their best . We can combine the best of both of these extremes by holding teachers and school leaders to account for what they have said they will do instead of checking they are complying with what some else thinks is right .

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Figure 4.4 . Poor accountability

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Astonishingly , as a profession we have no idea whether there might be a ‘ best way ’ to mark or even if marking is worth the time and effort . 102 In many ways , educational research is in the same parlous state as medieval medicine .

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Accountability processes can lead to unsustainable workload burdens that make it harder for teachers to be effective . If we are not held accountable for our behaviour , we are less likely to behave morally . Poor accountability processes result in teachers trying to look their best rather than trying to be their best . We are prone to thinking in false dichotomies . Instead of looking for weak compromises between competing extremes , we should be working out if polarised positions can be held in creative tension . Using the process of thesis , antithesis and synthesis can help us to make better decisions and arrive at stronger conclusions .

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Intelligent accountability makes teachers accountable for the trust we place in them . Accountability is intelligent if : Teachers know how they will be held accountable before judgements are made . The views of the people holding teachers to account are unknown . Teachers believe that those holding them to account are well informed and interested in accuracy .

Chapter 5: Equality, fairness and autonomy

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it . Maybe the most useful way to think about this is to contrast equality of opportunity with equality of outcome .

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If all teachers were equally experienced , equally hard - working and equally effective then it would make sense to treat all teachers in exactly the same way . Obviously enough , all teachers are different . They are effective at different things . If we try to make all teachers do the same things we will , inevitably , reduce the effectiveness of very many .

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Teachers sometimes spend so much time and effort proving what they have done or will do , that there is little space left over to actually do what needs to be done . In the one - size - fits - all approach to staff appraisal , everyone is treated according the lowest common denominator . If some staff don’t mark their books then , in the interests of equality , everyone is scrutinised in the same way . But treating everyone the same isn’t fair . If some colleagues need support , give it to them . If others merit freedom , they should have it . There will be times when it’s right and reasonable to remove freedoms and impose tighter constraints , but when all staff are treated identically everyone is demotivated .

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Performance management is much more likely to result in teachers thriving if it is centred on asking teachers what they want to work on and then , if they have earned the autonomy to be trusted , holding them to account for working on their priorities .

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Purpose is what keeps us going . We need purpose as well as pleasure to feel fulfilled . When performance management targets are imposed on teachers , their professional life becomes a routine of continually being asked to reach for something that is both meaningless and out of reach . If we seek to motivate teachers with a combination of carrots and sticks , teaching is reduced to doing what you’re told , covering your back and explaining why things went wrong . But if teachers feel a sense of purpose in sharing the breadth and beauty of their subjects , they are much more likely to work conscientiously and strive to improve , as well as being less burdened by anxiety . Having a purpose imbues teachers with the desire to improve for its own sake .

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Summary of Chapter 5 Although the aims of equality are well intentioned they inevitably result in people being treated unfairly . Treating teachers fairly means giving them the support and freedoms they need to be most effective . The more teachers are trusted , the greater autonomy they ought to be allowed . Autonomy must be earned ; it should be clear to all teachers how it can be earned . Teachers can be loosely categorised according to perceptions about their effort and expertise : high effort and high expertise , low effort and high expertise , high effort and low expertise , low effort and low expertise . There is no sufficiently reliable process to confidently identify the most or least effective teachers : remember that you should cultivate uncertainty and embrace your ignorance . Rights and responsibilities must be balanced ; teachers and school leaders must be subject to same principles of accountability . Consistency can be overrated ; negotiate your non - negotiables . It is more reasonable to make some things non - negotiable than others : anything that requires teachers ’ judgement and expertise is best left negotiable .

Chapter 6: Improving teaching

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The problem with using exam results to judge teachers is that results are achieved by children , not teachers . We have a natural tendency to look for explanations in the stable characteristics of individuals and to underestimate situational variability , which may lead us to over - interpret value - added measures as a property of the teacher .

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Clearly , teaching must have some effect on student outcomes but quantifying its impact is extraordinarily difficult , with some estimates suggesting teaching probably only accounts for around 30 % of the variance in such outcome measures .

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Overall , 63 % of judgements will be wrong . 143 We would get a more statistically valid and less biased assessment if we flipped a coin . At least that would be fairer . When lessons are graded , the observer looks for those things she approves of and is critical of anything else , regardless of the impact on students .

Chapter 7: Intelligent leadership

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Intelligent leadership works by creating a high trust surplus culture , holding teachers to account for the good things they’ve said they want to do . If they do what they’ve said and prove themselves trustworthy , we give them more trust . If they don’t do what they say they will , we tighten the accountability cycle .

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An intelligent leader knows that leading by consensus is impossible : nothing gets done and everyone gets frustrated . However , they do seek alignment and collective knowledge , particularly over those areas of school life that are important to teachers .

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The title ‘ leader ’ has pretty much entirely replaced that of ‘ manager ’ in schools . Years ago , schools used to have senior management teams ( SMT ) whereas today senior leadership teams ( SLT ) proliferate . On one level , managerialism simply refers to the beliefs and behaviour of managers , but more commonly it is used to refer to the petty tyrannies brought on by an over - reliance on metrics , control and accountability . Understandably , no one wants to be thought of like this and manager has increasingly come to be viewed almost as a term of abuse . Leaders , on the other hand , are clear - eyed superheroes , swooping in to singlehandedly improve underperforming schools . As we’ll find out , this view of school leadership – let’s call it leaderism – has a pernicious effect on how schools are run . Not only does this have negative consequences for teachers and students , but it’s equally unhealthy for leaders themselves .

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What teachers most want from leaders are prompt answers to questions , to know what’s possible and what isn’t , clarity and help solving problems . I’ve often encountered school leaders who trot out the maxim , “ Don’t bring me problems , bring me solutions ! ” ( To my shame , I’ve said this myself . ) But doesn’t this just make leadership redundant ? If you’re not there to solve teachers ’ problems , what is your role ? If teachers are expected to solve all their own problems and simply ask you to arbitrate or rubber - stamp their decisions , you are little more than an administrator . Arguably , leaderism results in dishonesty and distrust . School leaders have a distorted view of what they are meant to be doing and how to make it possible , and teachers are squeezed into compliantly enacting the will of leadership . All this tends to be done in the name of school improvement , but what does it really mean to improve a school ? Leaderism results in authoritarian double - think that blights the lives of teachers while claiming that all is being done ‘ for the students ’ . Can we honestly claim that students ’ education will be improved by staff being overworked and fearful ? If we were to view school improvement as the freedom to pursue excellence , then this might make it easier to evaluate whether initiatives are more likely to do harm than good .

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All too often , leaderism is responsible for building an architecture of compliance rather than intelligence .

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Just in case the message of these two anecdotes isn’t clear , here it is : power insulates you from reality . If you have power over others they will alter their behaviour to suit your preferences . If you specify exactly what you expect to see , you will be shown exactly what you specify . As we explored in Chapter 3 , the very best you will ever get is compliance . Unless you explicitly make the effort to reach beyond this and give people permission to be authentic with you , you are likely to have your preferences mirrored back to you .

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Intelligent school leadership relies on judgement and openness to feedback , therefore specify that what you want is knowledge , professional scepticism and honesty . Sadly , this is likely to surprise colleagues who have become accustomed to a compliance culture in education , so we will need to be explicit , persistent and grateful in privileging knowledge and honesty over ‘ mirroring ’ .

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With all the training that is ploughed into developing great leaders , shouldn’t we expect better ? Why is it that all the writing , research and training seems to produce such meagre results ? Perhaps the answer is , as with politicians , that we get what we deserve . If we privilege learned helplessness , compliance and accountability , how will we attract the potential leaders who thrive in cultures of honesty and mastery ?

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Five principles for creating a culture of high expectations 1 . Limit the rules . If there are too many rules – or if they are too complicated – they become hard to follow . We all naturally want to follow the easiest and most direct path , and behaviour policies should take account of this . What are the fewest possible rules you need ? Rules should be based on common sense and natural justice . Young people have a strongly developed sense of fairness . Where a rule is essentially fair , a student may still break it but they are less likely to argue with consequences being applied . 2 . What we permit we promote . Whatever students see enacted around them will come to be seen as normal . Rules are only as effective as our determination to enforce them . Students will always take their cues from our actions , not our words . 3 . Certainty not severity . The certainty that a consequence will be applied for misbehaviour is far more important than that the consequence is severe . What is important is that we should use the minimum compulsion necessary . What is the least severe sanction that might be sufficiently effective ? 4 . Don’t do it alone . If you’re operating in isolation , without the support of your school , everything is harder . If children don’t obey the school’s rules , it is everyone’s collective responsibility to do something about it . This only works if there is a system designed to support teachers . 5 . Act as a proxy for the real world . School is a relatively safe environment to fail in . The punishments for mistakes are infinitely less harsh than those children will experience when they’re adults . If we baulk at our duty to help socialise our students , we will be setting them up for a life of misery .

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It’s hard to argue that metrics haven’t led to major improvements in education from when I started teaching in the late 1990s . Back in the day , nobody asked me to look at any kind of data and I had literally no idea of my students ’ prior attainment and only the vaguest notion of how well they did in national exams . Consequently , lots of children did very badly and no one took any responsibility . Times changed . Education became increasingly focused on gathering performance data and pressure was put on schools to make sure exam results went up . And they did . Then came concerns about the curriculum narrowing and distortion , grade inflation , gaming and malpractice . Did the metrics help ? Well , maybe . Perhaps they helped to address some of the most egregious incompetence in the system , but then , as Goodhart’s law kicked in , they became increasingly unreliable .

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Summary of Chapter 7 Too much training in leadership is based on faulty intuition and wishful thinking ; better leadership development requires a greater understanding of , and engagement with , research and evidence . Leadership is a domain specific not a domain general skill : school leaders need to be more expert in education . The primary role of school leadership is to remove extraneous demands on teachers so they can focus on planning and teaching the very best curriculum possible . The traits that we would like leaders to possess are often at odds with the traits that get leaders promoted and make them successful . What seems to make leaders successful is often illusory . Successful leaders have been lucky in the past but will eventually regress to the mean . Senior leaders are likely to occupy a bubble where they only see and hear what those around them think they want to see and hear .


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Conclusion The perils and pitfalls of school leadership are many and various . It’s staggeringly easy to rush to judgement and make snap decisions which can have disastrous long - term effects on teachers and students alike . Always remember that it is far easier to destroy a school than it is to improve one . School leadership may be the most important factor in determining children’s – especially disadvantaged children’s – life chances . You face an awful weight of responsibility and children’s lives hang in the balance with every decision you make . But don’t let this put you off . My hat is off to you : you are doing a job I don’t have the patience , determination or wisdom to do . All you really have to do is to remember that your job is to make teachers ’ lives easier so that they can get on with the hard work of teaching students to be rounded , successful individuals , ready to participate in society . The trouble is that we find it so easy to lose sight of this simple aim . It’s hard not to feel important when you get your first leadership role and your own office . If you’re lucky enough to have your own personal assistant then you probably feel like a minor deity at times . But big chairs , sharp suits and new initiatives don’t make effective leaders . If this book has accomplished anything , I hope it is to remind you that you exist to serve and that you are only as effective as your ability to tap into the collective knowledge of your school and the wider educational community . If you can maintain your focus on creating the conditions for teachers to thrive , you won’t go far wrong . Intelligent accountability : a summary You will never have enough information to make perfect decisions . To improve the odds of making better decisions , you must seek out collective sources of knowledge . Work to make your school operate on a surplus model . Assume teachers are well intentioned and look around to see how you can make it easier for them to make better decisions . When teachers are trusted to act as professionals , they are more likely to be their best . Accountability is essential but only if you make teachers aware when judgements are being made . Try to conceal your preferences and prove that you are knowledgeable and interested in accuracy . Treating teachers equally is unfair . Allow those who have earned it as much autonomy as possible and work with those who haven’t to earn it in the future . Help to create the conditions for teachers to develop expert intuitions by focusing on what they need to learn and the best bets for helping them learn it . The single most important aspect of your job is to make it as easy as possible for teachers to teach . All else flows from that .