The following is taken from chapter 3 of my new book, Intelligent Accountability.

Confucius believed that three things were needed for a ruler to govern: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler is unable to hold on to all of these he should give up the weapons first, followed by the food. Trust, he thought, should be guarded to the last. This is true for everyone and every institution. It may be difficult to govern without a standing army to enforce your will or when people are hungry, but if there’s no trust, there’s no hope at all. In the context of schools, weapons and food are analogous to the sticks and carrots used to motivate teachers, but trust is still trust.

According to Onara O’Neill, a lack of trust in the workplace has led to ‘a culture of suspicion’ which has generated ever greater demands for accountability, undermined professional responsibility and trust, and led to adverse effects on health and well-being. Teaching is now one of the three professions with the highest reports of stress: 53% of education professionals have considered leaving education over the past two years. It could be that teaching is an inherently stressful job but other sources reveal a bleaker picture

In 2001, the then Education Secretary Estelle Morris acknowledged that, “many teachers say they feel themselves stretched almost to breaking point”. The following year, the Department for Education and Skills published a report which estimated that teachers spent 20% of their time on non-teaching tasks such as photocopying, processing forms for school trips or other administrative activities. Morris promised “a concerted attack on any bureaucracy” that might get in the way of teaching. Despite teachers no longer expected to take on admin tasks, put up classroom displays or cover lessons for absent colleagues, workload seems to have increased in the intervening years.

Schools – like all organisations – run on trust. In their study, Trust in Schools, Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider found that those schools with the highest achievement levels also had the highest levels of trust within their school communities. Although it seems clear that trust is the cornerstone on which great teaching is built, it is in such desperately short supply. There can be little doubt of the toxic and pernicious effects of teachers’ workload. In a sane and rational universe, something would be done about the dreadful toll this takes. Never mind the appalling waste of talent, the time and money we needlessly fritter away should be argument enough.

If we cannot trust others to act within agreed parameters then everything breaks down. The larger the school, the less likely it is that we possess the personal knowledge of every individual staff member required to make a sound judgement, so the source for our trust – or lack of it – becomes reputational. When an individual is perceived to have a trustworthy reputation, we tend to let disconfirming evidence slide. If a teacher has a less enviable reputation, leaders will tend to judge even minor issues with undue harshness.

Trust comes from trustworthiness. If school leaders show themselves to be trustworthy then it’s easier to trust that they’re doing a good job. The same applies to teachers. But someone has to make the first move: trust has to go both ways. But just as schools can’t decide to be trusted by society, teachers can’t choose to be trusted by school leaders. As well as being  common sense, there is good evidence that trusting employees is the wisest course of action when they are considered trustworthy. Similarly, as we shall explore in the next chapter, accountability only works when those being held to account trust those making the judgement. Trust and trustworthiness are reciprocal. In a culture of mistrust, someone has to break the cycle to establish this virtuous reciprocity. This responsibility must fall to school leaders.

High trust environments seem a good bet for helping teachers to improve. Arguably, the two most important factors in making ourselves more trustworthy and creating a high trust environment are honesty and expertise. Without these two qualities in our schools, an insufficiency or deficit is built in, preventing us from acting with sufficient knowledge and realism and thereby undermining our decision-making as leaders.

Both school leaders and teachers have mutually reinforcing rights and responsibilities. Unless these are respected by both parties, trust is likely to erode and school become inimical to well being.

In my next post I will explore how accountability should be balanced with trust.

I’ve put together an overview of the book here.

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