5.4.2 - Professional standards and accountability

Learning objectives for this chapter:

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

  • To be able to define professional standards and accountability, and to set them in wider quality assurance and monitoring frameworks
  • To appreciate the breadth and depth of the content of teacher professional standards, and the legal basis for them
  • To appreciate how a standards-informed pedagogy supports learners and offers opportunities to educators
  • To understand the value of teacher-led accountability in driving school performance and in increasing the autonomy of professional practitioners

How can we define standards and accountability in a teaching context?


Standards in education refers to levels of performance below which it is considered unsatisfactory to fall. Standards occur across the educational landscape, and may appear at many levels. At the level of the individual educator, for example, there are standards of performance, ability, attitude, and of behaviour. Standards may be applied to settings, and may occur in different contexts. Ofsted, the body which inspects schools in England, for example, has as its remit the assessment of schools in respect of the quality of their provision, so that minimum standards can be seen to be being upheld, so that exemplary performance may be noted and credit given, and that appropriate support be targeted at those settings whose educational offering falls below acceptable standards (UK Government, 2016).

Standards-based education defines what learners should be able to do at each level of their education; national curriculum documentation is based around the concept of standards-based education, and such standards may be gauged by summative year-end testing (including SAT tests), and by GCSE performance.


Accountability, at its most straightforward, is a relationship by which one party has an obligation to account for their performance or their actions to another. Such an obligation assumes that the party giving account has some responsibility for their actions or performance; accountability therefore invokes both responsibility and accounting, which might be assessed against standards which are expected to be met or exceeded (Gilbert, 2012). The notion of responsibility has two aspects in such a scenario; first that there is a measure of localised emotions bound up with meeting performance standards, for example in providing a quality education to a child, or to a group of children; and secondly, that responsibility implies that there is an element of agency involved. Freedom to act generates responsibility.

Four key school accountability relationships have been identified (Gilbert, 2012). Schools (and individuals within them) should account to each of these, as they have responsibilities which refer to each four in turn: 

  • To pupils: and to their parents/carers, as well as to the wider communities served by the setting. This may be seen as a moral accountability.
  • To colleagues: colleagues should be professionally accountable to each other; the school must be accountable to its staff in professional terms
  • To employers (including the government): employees, including teachers, are accountable in contractual terms to their employers (and to the government)
  • To the market: where there is at least an element of free market choice in where children may attend, there is market accountability at work, as schools should be appealing to the market, and have to deliver on their promises or face rebuttal or loss of market position (Gilbert, 2012).

Though we may conceive accountability at first in terms of upward accountability (teachers to line managers, school senior management to governors, schools to Ofsted, and so on) the accountability frameworks are much wider and less uni-directional if we consider a stakeholder-informed approach as above.     

These four accountability relationships are managed in two principal ways. The first is through standards-based performance models, which assess measurable criteria such as examination results, attendance percentages, and performance in other productivity terms. Such an approach emphasises what has been done; being essentially summative, it is at its best in evidencing what has been done to date.

The second approach is to consider improvements-in-process, school evaluations, and internal debate with stakeholders; this can evidence more formative and qualitative measures of accountability, as the processes can be seen to be working, rather than there being a focus only on their data-driven outcomes. 

What standards are teachers held to by law/ in policy/ by individual institutions?

A revised framework for teachers' standards in England was introduced in 2012, with the intent that these standards would establish a clear set of expectations for teachers' professional practice and personal conduct. The current standards for England replaced predecessor guidelines, and were developed after an extensive independent review of the profession, which was undertaken in 2011. The review made two reports: the first reported on teachers' core and qualifying standards, and the second commented on the upper tiers of the standards framework, and into designations such as 'post-threshold', 'excellent teacher' and 'advanced skills teacher' statuses (HM Government 2011a; HM Government, 2011b). The reports, and the updated standards resultant from them, were structured around the core principles that the standards should be clear and straightforward, that they would support teacher training and inform performance management for those in post, and that the standards would also work to inform continuing professional development. Together, the standards frame the minimum expected performance level of trainee teachers and those who have achieved qualifying teacher status (QTS). The current standards are open-ended and thus have no expiry date, though will be subject to periodic review and potential updating resultant from such review.

The standards represent a minimum level of achievement, performance, and behaviour, and need contextualising to the individual teacher's setting and to their level of experience and career stage. For these reasons, the professional judgement of head teachers and other appraisers is considered central to the effective working of the standards. The standards are meant to be a spur for teachers to engage in processes of self-reflection and self-evaluation, and to inform continuous professional development (CPD), as the standards designate key areas for the individual practitioner to focus on.   

Why are standards implemented universally? How does this benefit learners?

Part of the relevance of a standard is that is has wide applicability; if it does not, then it cannot be said to be a standard in any meaningful way. It makes sense, therefore, for standards to be widely applied, and for there to be moves that bring the implementation of that standard towards universality in the given context of that standard.

With the different institutional arrangements existing between schools which continue to be local authority controlled, and their academy and free school comparators, some differences exist in some areas, but the standards which are applied nationally (such as the teachers' standards discussed in the previous section) nevertheless set the benchmark for those criteria, and will inform the wider sector. For standards which are more genuinely universal, such as Ofsted inspection and grading criteria, then the situation is even clearer, as all institutions need to be proactive in their addressing of the national standards required of educational institutions. The universal applicability of such standards has a levelling effect; all providers know the standards to be met, and have equitable access to information on how to best ensure that those standards may be achieved. 

Where variations in school constitution and funding exist, and where there is some choice in the educational market pace, the existence and maintenance of universalised standards provides evidence of educational oversight by government. Schools are perhaps freer now than ever before to make decisions about their approach to teaching, and about the specific ethos which informs that approach, but nationally-referable standards across areas such as teachers' ability and behaviour, inspection regimes, performance against attainment standards and the like offer both guidance and protection.

Such standards indicate to pupils and their communities that oversight is in operation, and that schools - and individual educators within them - have latitude to provide a differentiated experience, but that there are protections in place to ensure and to make public situations where such experiences deviate from acceptable standards.

Why is accountability important for practice?

Accountability can be a positive for teaching practice in many ways, but each of them is informed by a single element; that greater accountability gives opportunities for teachers to have input and agency in shaping the ways in which they as individual practitioners, and as part of a wider collegiate setting, can enhance school ownership of accountability measures.

Gilbert (2012) argues for the professional ownership of school accountability by educators. It is too easy to see standards measures and the public accountability which they inform as external negative forces, judging and trying to control educational contexts which they cannot hope to appreciate. For Gilbert (2012), as it is teachers who are best placed to make a difference to children's lives through their rapport with their learners, their local knowledge, and their skills and craft as subject educators, then it is only sensible that such professionals make ownership of a self-improving system their priority.

In such ways, accountability can draw from teacher's knowledge of and relationship with the contexts of their professional practice, and accountability is made meaningful because it is informed by learner experience. Gilbert notes that good teachers "felt particularly accountable for the quality of their own teaching and they acknowledged that maintaining public confidence in standards of teaching was an important part of this" (Gilbert, 2012, p. 10).

Some schools may have extended their ownership of accountability to neighbour settings, or else to others within the same academic trust, or otherwise within the same borough. This gives opportunities for more developed communities of learning, for extending collegiality, and for networking; there will doubtless be a school leadership part to play, but the impact and value of teachers being involved in such initiatives should not be underplayed. Such collaborative practice can have benefits with regard to:

  • The demystifying of schools, with openness, accountability and community relations being foregrounded
  • The centrality of learners to education being celebrated and made the focus of engagements
  • A shift from teachercentric to learner-centric investigations
  • The development of models of pedagogy where teachers are central, in the way that in other professional spheres (doctors, solicitors as examples) those practitioners are foregrounded

This requires buy-in from senior management, the head teacher, school governing bodies, and from other oversight mechanisms, such as may be found within larger academy trusts. However, with a teacher-led and learning-centric conceptualisation of accountability, rather than a top-down set of pressures which may be informed by the results of teaching rather than by its experience, teachers have opportunities to direct accountability in creative ways which will support the development of their own practice while enhancing the support an expertise they offer to their learners. 


Teaching and professional standards can be a contentious area for some, not least if accountability is taken to mean overbearing top-down scrutiny by fault-picking management. There is no doubt that for some in the past, that has been the experience. However, this chapter has worked to show that there are sound reasons for having professional standards in place, and that accountability is a necessary part of an open school system where there is an element of both institutional and governmental oversight at work, and parental choice between schools to be articulated.

Balances need to be struck between summative and formative aspects of accountability; this chapter has argued that if teachers are proactive, then then not only improve their own standards of teaching, but this impacts positively on learners, and supports whole-school efforts. This in turn drives quality and oversight agendas, and makes accountability both more straightforward and less burdensome. The key is to be engaged, forward-thinking, and to see standards and accountability measures as opportunities to excel.   


Department for Education (2016) Standard for teachers' professional development. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/537030/160712_-_PD_standard.pdf (Accessed: 4 December 2016).

General Teaching Council for Northern Ireland (2006) Professional Competences - general teaching council for Northern Ireland. Available at: http://www.gtcni.org.uk/index.cfm/area/information/page/ProfStandard (Accessed: 3 December 2016).

General Teaching Council for Scotland (2016) Professional standards. Available at: http://www.gtcs.org.uk/professional-standards/professional-standards.aspx (Accessed: 3 December 2016).

Gilbert, C. (2012) Inspiring leaders to improve children's lives towards a self-improving system: The role of school accountability. Available at: http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/14919/1/towards-a-self-improving-system-school-accountability-thinkpiece%5B1%5D.pdf (Accessed: 3 December 2016).

HM Government (2011a) First report of the independent review into teachers standards: core and QTS standards. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/175433/first_report_of_the_review_of_teachers_standards.pdf (Accessed: 3 December 2016).

HM Government (2011b) Second report of the independent review into teachers' standards. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/546707/DFE-00168-2011.pdf (Accessed: 3 December 2016).

HM Government (2013) Teachers' standards guidance for school leaders, school staff and governing bodies. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/301107/Teachers__Standards.pdf (Accessed: 3 December 2016).

HM Government (2016) The office for standards in education, children's services and skills (Ofsted) strategic plan 2014. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/523729/Strategic_priorities_May_2016.pdf (Accessed: 3 December 2016).

The education (school teachers' qualifications) (England) regulations 2003, c. Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2003/1662/schedule/2/made (Accessed: 3 December 2016).

The education (school teachers' appraisal) (England) regulations 2012, c. Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2012/115/contents/made (Accessed: 3 December 2016).

Welsh Government (2011) Revised professional standards for education practitioners in Wales. Available at: http://learning.gov.wales/docs/learningwales/publications/140630-revised-professional-standards-en.pdf (Accessed: 3 December 2016).

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