What do you think of when you hear the word “accountability”? It’s a word we often hear in the media, and we use it often in our role as governors and trustees of our local schools. But sometimes, listening to the media, you’d wonder if they can be talking about the same thing. It’s not unusual to hear reporters will say something like, “Here’s an interview with someone who says another person hasn’t been punished enough, so that means there’s not enough accountability.”

But accountability isn’t the same as punishment.

To be accountable is not merely to carry a range of tasks or obligations…or to keep proper accounts. It is also to…provide…evidence of the standard to which those tasks and obligations are discharged” - Onora O'Neill 27 October 2009

It’s not about punishment, it’s about trust

In 2011 we ran an article about accountability and trust, based on the work of Baroness Onora O’Neill. In it, we said:

"How do we know who we can trust?
...an effective system of accountability:
- encourages us to be trustworthy, and
- reassures us that we can safely place our trust in each other.
" - STAnews (Issue 211, March 2011)

So, accountability shouldn’t be a negative, deficit thing. It does start from the position that our children’s wellbeing and education is important enough that their caregivers deserve to know that we are trustworthy – but that’s not an alternative to trusting each other, it’s the foundation for it.

Intelligent trust

Accountability is the process of showing we are trustworthy, so that others know they can trust us. That includes identifying the limits of our trust. Baroness O’Neill describes this as “intelligent trust”. Likewise, when we require accountability from our staff or each other – whether it’s in the form of financial variance reports, Education Outside The Classroom (EOTC) risk assessments, codes of behaviour, professional standards, curriculum reports, or something else – the point is so that we can know, and show, the reasons why we choose to extend our trust to them. In education, getting those decisions right is crucial.

"… All accountability presupposes some forms of trust. So it is an illusion to think that we can forget about trust and concentrate solely on accountability either in daily or in public life…it is…absurd to think that trust can be eliminated from professional and public life…" - Onora O'Neill 27 October 2009

Done properly, accountability is the process of making informed decisions about where to place – or withhold – our trust, so that things don’t go wrong in the first place. In the words of Baroness O’Neill, it’s about finding “…intelligent ways of providing information [to] enable those who have no special expertise – and rather little time – to place and refuse trust with more security.”

It’s a lot like creating a policy framework. We create policies that clarify what we are working together to achieve (sometimes referred to as strategic policy, or ends policies) and the behaviour we consider acceptable in achieving it (operational policy, means policies, or procedures). So, for example, we entrust the safety of our students to the classroom teacher – but we place limits on that, so if they are going off-site, or learning about working in a kitchen, or with power tools, we expect to be assured, through the principal, that our children will still be safe. It doesn’t imply any lack of trust in the classroom teacher, it simply means we share the duty of care to ensure that everything is being done properly. In fact, every policy framework reflects a set of accountabilities as well as responsibilities.

“Systems of accountability can provide evidence that helps the intelligent placing of trust: but only if they provide some usable and reliable evidence of trustworthiness…The important question in considering accountability is not…whether we can eliminate reliance on trust – we cannot – but when and how we should try to strengthen the evidence for placing trust intelligently by introducing or adjusting systems of accountability.” - Onora O'Neill 27 October 2009

It also follows that when we as a board are accountable to our community, it’s not just some box-ticking compliance exercise for the auditor. Accountability goes to the heart of our school relationships: How do our students and the people who care most about them know that we are worthy of their trust? What evidence can we show them? After all, we would expect some evidence of trustworthiness before we lend someone else our car, or the keys to our house – it’s not unreasonable. And it doesn’t have to be complex or overly formal…just convincing.

“There is no simple reason to think that we should always aim for more rigorous formal systems of accountability or that they will always serve us better than more direct relations of trust. All too often they raise transaction costs without securing high levels of trustworthiness – let alone of trust.” - Onora O'Neill 27 October 2009

Accountability systems don’t have to be complex and time consuming – in fact, the best ones aren’t. The best ones give us the security of knowing and showing why we trust the people around us as part of the everyday fabric of our daily routines. But they do need to satisfy us on both counts, knowing and showing.

“There is much at stake. When we refuse to trust the trustworthy we incur needless worry and cost in trying to check them out and hold them to account, while those who find their trustworthiness wrongly questioned may feel undermined, even insulted – and perhaps less inclined to remain trustworthy. And when we trust the untrustworthy we may find our trust betrayed, and lose whatever we staked, be it friendship, political aims or money.” - Onora O'Neill 27 October 2009

Or, in our case, our children: their wellbeing, their education, and their future.


RSS Beveridge Lecture 2009: Holding Accountability to Account delivered by Onora O'Neill 27 October 2009 at the RSS HQ, London

See also: STAnews 211 (March 2011) Principal and board – trust plus accountability.