Reconfiguring accountabilities in education through multiple partnerships (part 1 of 2)

Professor Bob Lingard, University of Queensland

This is the first blog in a two-part series that summarises Bob’s keynote address to the New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE) annual conference 2017. The second blog in the series can be found here.


Accountability has become a seemingly ever-present part of the modern educational landscape. There is a drive to be constantly improving educational quality and outcomes and to be ensuring that teachers, school leaders, schools, and even governments are doing the ‘right’ things to support this improvement.

My work involves questioning some of the assumptions and practices that are associated with modern ideas of top-down, test-based accountability in education. There is not just one approach to accountability; rather, there are multiple practices, structures and cultures of accountability. We need to make these explicit—and therefore contestable—to avoid allowing one form of accountability (e.g. test-based accountability) to be ‘naturalised’ over others (e.g. trust-based accountability) to the extent that the favoured form of accountability becomes accepted as inevitable or normal.

To this end, the first post in this two-part series makes explicit the predominant forms of accountability in Western countries today. The second post in the series then outlines some alternatives that I believe offer healthier approaches to accountability.

The accountability ‘pharmakon’

In the medical field there is a concept called pharmakon. A pharmakon is a substance that, in and of itself, is neither helpful nor harmful – rather, a pharmakon is:

“A drug that may act as a poison or a remedy … any drug whose effect can mutate into its opposite, depending on the dose, the circumstances, or the context, any drug whose action provides no guarantee, defines no fixed point of reference that would allow us to recognise and understand its effects with some assurance.”
Stengers, 2010

My colleagues and I have argued that accountability in education is a bit like this concept of pharmakon: Although accountability in and of itself it is not a bad thing, it can end up having damaging effects – and this is what we have seen in Western education systems since the 1970s.

The neoliberal approach to accountability in education

Accountability, as we all know, is to do with ensuring that people are accountable, responsible, or ‘answerable’ for their conduct and performance. It should involve two elements, held in balance: people being held to account by others, and people giving an account themselves. However, since the 1970s, the political climates in Western countries have contributed to the establishment of neoliberal approaches to accountability in education that almost exclusively involve holding to account. This has involved a declining public trust in quasi-autonomous professional communities (such as the teaching profession) and an obsession with audits, performance measures, and data. Thus, a concept that in and of itself is not a bad thing—accountability—has been morphed into an unhealthy “audit society”. Ranson has highlighted four components of this neoliberal approach to accountability in education:

  • Consumer accountability, with the development of quasi-markets in which parents are seen as consumers who choose between the various schools in their area;
  • Contract accountability, involving performance contracts, budget and efficiency measures, deliverables, network governance, and the business-informed New Public Management;
  • Performative accountability, constructed using top-down, test-based audit cultures that involve standards, targets, inspections and league tables; and
  • Corporate accountability, in which the private sector has an increasing role in ‘public’ education (for example, through Public-Private Partnerships and the influence of large global corporations such as Pearson Education – see here, here, and here) and public aims are traded off against private considerations of profitability and commercial sense.

These forms of accountability have become increasingly prevalent in Western countries:

“Since the late 1970s … regimes of public accountability have been strengthened systematically so that accountability is no longer merely an important instrument or component within the system, but constitutes the system itself.”
Ranson, 2003

This is not a pipe

With all of these forces acting in education, questions start to arise. Is what we are “measuring” and basing our accountability decisions on actually a good representation of what education is about? Does it give us a complete picture, or just one slice? It’s a bit like the famous painting of a pipe, captioned “This is not a pipe”: Just as a painting of a pipe is not actually a pipe, all our performance and accountability measures in education are not actually the real stuff or fabric of education.

A number of researchers, including myself, have sought to explore alternatives to these neoliberal approaches to accountability. We do not seek to return to the pre-1970 situation in which professionals such as teachers operated with limited accountability; rather, we are interested in new approaches that offer a healthy balance between holding to account and giving an account:

“Rather than insisting on abolishing school accountability systems, there is a need for new type of accountability policies that balance qualitative with quantitative measures and build on mutual accountability, professional responsibility and trust.”
Sahlberg, 2010

The next post in this two-part series introduces three such models: intelligent accountability, genuine accountability, and rich accountability.


Bob.jpgProfessor Bob Lingard works in the School of Education at The University of Queensland. His research area is the sociology of education. His most recent books include Globalizing Educational Accountability (Routledge, 2016), National Testing in Schools: An Australian Assessment (Routledge, 2016), The International Handbook of Global Education Policy (Wiley, 2016), and Politics, Policies and Pedagogies in Education (Routledge, 2014). Bob is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia and also of the Academy of the Social Sciences in the UK. He is also Editor of the journal, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education and of the Routledge New York book series, Key Ideas in Education.

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