Accountable Not Responsible

Many teachers believe and, in many cases, their schools allow them to believe that they are responsible rather than accountable for their students’ exam results. To further ensure that this message is hammered home, teachers endure learning walks, observations and Ofsted inspections which would give Harry Enfield’s (1994 Harry Enfield and Chums, BBC) character ‘You didn’t wanna’ a run for his money: ‘You didn’t wanna give feedback like that, ask questions like that, give direct instruction like that, wipe the board like that, control behaviour like that; the list is endless.

This serves to ensure that the teacher not only buys into the erroneous philosophy that they can be responsible for their students’ grades but that it is because an endless list of dubious criteria were not seen in a 20 minute lesson observation that results are not where they should be. When you think about this, it is not surprising that teachers experience stress-related illness and that so many are leaving the profession.

So let’s explore the difference between accountability and responsibility.

A brilliant article on this very topic was written by James Williams, lecturer in education at the University of Sussex, school of education and social work and appeared in the TES Opinion column on 12th July 2014

Williams writes, ‘There’s a difference between responsibility and accountability, but the distinction is often unclear and can vary according to the context within which the terms are used. In some instances the words are used interchangeably, but it would be helpful for all concerned, for schools, teachers and parents to have a clear understanding of responsibility and accountability when it comes to education.

Responsibility is mainly about the individual. Individuals should take responsibility for what they do. Accountability is how prepared an individual or group of people is to explain and justify their actions and decisions to others (in this case parents, senior leaders etc.).

It may well be that if an individual’s decision is wrong, they may have to take responsibility for any failure, such as studying the wrong text for an examination. But initially it is accountability rather than responsibility that should be the starting point for the analysis of examination results.

Teachers must be accountable for what they teach, the lessons they plan, knowing their subject and delivering what the specifications demand. Whether an individual can be held responsible will depend on whether or not their decisions are justified and the actions of others.

Failing to distinguish between accountability and responsibility is where crude measures, such as league tables, fall down. Real life is messy. Students do not always make the best choices when it comes to the effort made in revising for examinations for example.’

So let’s use these wise words to analyse our accountability as teachers. If we represent this as a venn diagram it is easy to see that what we are accountable for is a tiny part of the whole picture.


The left hand circle represents the things students do that matter in making them successful.  Things like good study habits, finishing work on time, reviewing their notes and putting in revision.  The tiny intersection with the circle on the right represents the things we can control such as ensuring we teach the correct specification, plan interesting lessons sans blancmange (see previous post), provide model answers with examiners’ comments, give students the opportunity to practise exam questions, provide detailed feedback on how to improve, chart their progress and  provide support and other interventions when they are below target. The fact that students choose to work twenty five hours a week outside of school, take a holiday the week before the exams start, have teenage angst with their parents and party rather than turning in homework is not our responsibility; we can do nothing to change that.

So take heart friends. I hope this blog gives you the courage to stop feeling responsible for things you cannot change; the grace to be accountable for those you can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

Have a great Christmas and see you in the New Year.

One thought on “Accountable Not Responsible

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s