Sustaining high quality teaching: Focus on proactive goals over reactive targets

This post is from a contribution I made to the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Teaching Profession’s book Re-imagining Education in England (edited by Chris Waterman and Georgina Newman). It was published by Iris Press in 2022.

Research by the Health and Safety Executive suggests teachers report some of the highest rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety in the UK (HSE, 2020). Efforts to make teaching and schools more accountable, which have been dominant since the 1988 Education Reform Act, have clearly impacted negatively on the profession – possibly resulting in lower retention – as teachers seek to meet attainment targets, performance management targets and prepare for routine inspections (DfE, 2016). It could easily be argued that the HSE findings and our current accountability framework are connected.

Nonetheless, there is also a clear link between positive outcomes for pupils when schools combine an accountability framework that allows space for adequate professional autonomy (Gilbert, 2012). Importantly, autonomy gives teachers the freedom to own their practice and professional development, whereas accountability holds them responsible for results. Evidence, drawn from 22 evaluations in 11 countries, suggests that when autonomy and accountability are intelligently combined, they tend to be positively correlated with better school performance (Bruns, Filmer & Patrinos, 2011; OECD, 2011; Gilbert 2012).  In essence, this evidence suggests many aspects of our current accountability framework are impactful. However, is the balance between accountability and autonomy right, especially if we consider the evidence cited above? 

It could be argued that accountability measured by the current framework is too reactive and not particularly proactive. Poor teacher performance and interventions to support staff are often put in place after targets are missed or after inspectors have decided there is an issue. Studies now indicate that periodic high stakes evaluation of targets are unreliable in determining teacher effectiveness (Coe et al, 2014). Moreover, this can also lead to distorting behaviours amongst teachers (Weston & Clay, 2018).

Therefore, teachers could benefit from shorter timeframes for manageable goals, which could be better tailored to individual teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, professional development needs and experience. Here, goals can be seen as inspiring teachers to work towards achieving an objective they believe will improve their immediate practice. Once a teacher has got a grip on these short-term goals, school managers can then look at setting longer-term goals. Of course, these goals will still contribute to the meeting of wider performance management targets, but they will allow for more support, contextual flexibility and, crucially, autonomy in fulfilling those more arbitrary targets and descriptors in the long run. It would be up to schools to consider whether they prefer coaching or mentoring models for this process, but both would work if line managers and other lead practitioners are properly trained. Fortunately, there is plenty of research and literature available on goal setting available to school leaders both within our profession and from outside (Glifford, 2016; Weston & Clay, 2018).

There are, however, limitations to this approach, especially considering the availability of time and staff to support the setting of short-term goals; this would be particularly acute in smaller schools. Schools would also need to scale back on burdensome performance management paperwork in order to facilitate greater focus on short-term goal-setting. Nonetheless, this re-balancing of performance management may lessen the stress and anxiety embedded in the current framework in favour of more positive autonomy in a new, re-imagined, framework. Evidence is thin on ground, but a number studies suggest this process works well in other settings (Gifford, 2016). 


Bruns, B. Filmer, D. & Patrinos, H. A. (2011). Making schools work:new evidence on accountability reforms. Washington DC: World Bank Publications.

Coe R., Aloisi C., Higgins S. & Major, L.E. (2014) What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research. Sutton Trust, October 2014. London: Sutton Trust. Available at: [accessed 17.04.21].

DfE (2016). Eliminating unnecessary workload around marking. London: Department for Education. Retrieved from: [accessed 14.04.21].

HSA (2020). Health and safety at work: Summary statistics for Great Britain 2020. London: UK Health & Safety Executive. Retrieved from: [accessed 14.04.21].

Gifford, J. (2016). Could do better? Assessing what works in performance management. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Retrieved from: [17.04.21

Gilbert, C. (2012). Towards a self-improving system: the role of school accountability. Nottingham: National College for School Leadership. Retrieved from: [accessed 17.04.21]

OECD (2011). PISA in Focus. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Weston, D. & Clay, B. (2018). Unleashing Great Teaching: The Secrets to the Most Effective Teacher Development. London: Routledge.

Photo credit: Marco Verch via Flickr (used under a Creative Commons Licence)

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