Research School Network: Performance management is perhaps oxymoronic… Over the years I have opined in various ways about the risks of taking credit or apportioning blame where it’s unmerited
Performance management is perhaps oxymoronic…
Over the years I have opined in various ways about the risks of taking credit or apportioning blame where it’s unmerited
by Billesley Research School
Over the years I have opined in various ways about the risks of taking credit or apportioning blame where it is unmerited.
I have nothing against accountability per se. Indeed, I have spent much of my life being accountable; long before I became I had the responsibility baked into my job role as an ‘Accounting Officer’. The key question with accountability systems is whether they actually make a difference to the whole. Otherwise you are just piddling around at the edges and executing scapegoats, “Pour encourager les autres”. This is a big question. It’s basically the same as asking whether Adam Smith’s, “Invisible hand” actually exists in all situations.
Unfortunately, the education sector has spent much of the last 20 years paralysed poring over historical data that it often neither expected nor understood. Each year after results are published long tedious meetings are held at all levels to explain and justify the surprises. Often these meetings will involve extensive reference to comparators in an attempt to contextualise performance of teachers and schools. Unexplained and/or unjustified surprises can often have career limiting implications.
The trouble with lived experience of high-stakes accountability is that for many headteachers it feels fundamentally unfair. The only certainty is that you will be blamed for something eventually. You just have to hope that, when it comes, it is something for which you were actually responsible.
I know headteachers who are so shaped by this unfairness that they spend significant amounts of their time scanning the past for potential threats, then ‘contextualising’ or more bluntly ‘rewriting’ historical events where necessary.
This is worse than driving via the rear view mirror and more like driving down a motorway whilst having turned the driver’s seat 180 degrees round to look out of the rear window through binoculars.
Analysis of past events is only really useful when compared against what we expected to happen. An early boss of mind always said, “There are only three things you need to know to run an organisation; 1. Where did you say you’d be now? 2. Where are you? 3. If there’s a difference between 1 and 2, why and how does it affect your future forecast?“
The challenge for performance management is that to be, in any meaningful sense of the word, ‘managed’, performance must first be anticipated and it often isn’t. You can’t wait to see what happens and then trot out your best excuse. Otherwise all we have is accountability and blame. To genuinely improve the performance of the system as a whole we have to get better at forecasting and acting upon those forecasts while we still have time to make changes.
Equally, for accountability systems to function the people within them must have a sense of agency. They must believe that they can actually make a difference to the outcomes. Consequently, messaging from system controllers is extremely important. If those in the system believe it is a zero-sum game, then it is entirely rational to save your energy for the justification rather than waste it on advancing the disadvantaged.
It will be interesting to observe how as we emerge from Covid 19, which has removed any actionable data from the education sector for at least two years and arguably longer, whether this creates an opportunity to take a few more risks on behalf of the most disadvantaged. And whether we will get better at looking at what is in front of us.
CEO, The Elliot Foundation
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