The trust gap: why schools are afraid to take risks

The Key

“That was a good lesson, Adam, but you need to take more risks.”

I lost count of the number of times I heard this during my NQT year. Did I listen? No – I was plagued with the fear of teaching an inadequate lesson in front of my deputy head.

The only risk I did end up taking was spending a two-hour bus trip next to a child known to suffer from travel sickness. Of course, I asked my trusty but underpaid TA to step in when the child was about to erupt (I later tried to present this as evidence for the ‘deploying support staff effectively’ teaching standard).

As a teacher, I definitely preferred to go for the tried and tested, and now I wish I’d done things differently. But after speaking to a few school leaders at The Key’s Life After Levels conference in May, it appears I may not be the only one who likes to play it safe.

There were some great examples of innovative practice on show at the conference, particularly around reporting assessment to parents and intertwining it with the curriculum. However, I also heard comments along the lines of: “We are testing out an assessment system, but we’re expecting Ofsted soon. If we achieve a ‘good’, we might try one that’s a bit more risky.”

On top of that, there was a poor show of hands in response to a question asking how comfortable delegates were with the removal of levels (this also emerged as an issue in The Key’s recent State of Education survey, in which 75% of respondents reported difficulty with it).

Unlike me, school leaders have good reason to be risk-averse. Ofsted’s inspection handbook is vague when it comes to assessment – perhaps deliberately so. Paragraph 39 explains that inspectors should not advocate a particular method of assessment; they should just expect to see one that works.

This is great but, rightly or wrongly, there seems to be a concern that some schools will get that rogue Ofsted team that throws the handbook out of the window. Whether the horror stories are myth or reality, it’s understandable that some school leaders are taking their freedom with a pinch of salt.

I think the issue here is trust. Do teachers trust what Ofsted says, and do all inspectors trust teachers’ professional judgement? Back in January, Fiona Miller argued in favour of developing a culture of trust between politicians and teachers. According to her, the politics of education is dominated by a belief that professionals are prone to failure unless the government steps in to improve them. This, in turn, creates a “negative climate” in schools characterised by fear and mistrust.

If this is right, it’s no wonder some school leaders lack the confidence to take a risk. Would we be seeing a different picture if schools operated in a culture based on trust and belief in what they can do? Maybe – but perhaps that’s wishful thinking.

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