Identity, responsibility and accountability

Joe Vickers, Year 5 Class Teacher, Milton Keynes.

Tug of war


This article considers the concepts of identity, responsibility and accountability, and attempts to connect them in a way that is meaningful for trainee and newly-qualified teachers. These three concepts are explored from both theoretical and practical perspectives, then drawn together in a single model. The article suggests that ‘teacher identity’ and ‘teacher accountability’ are often viewed as opposed and mutually exclusive, and argue that ‘responsibility’ sits between these two extremes and acts as a mediating influence on both of them. For this reason, the author concludes that our sense of responsibility has the greatest influence on our classroom practice.


The concepts of identity, responsibility and accountability surface regularly in scholarship, politics and in teacher education (Møller, 2009). However, the precise meanings of these terms, and the distinction between them, are often not appreciated or articulated in more than a superficial way. For many trainee and beginning teachers, accountability and identity are ill-defined but seemingly fundamentally opposed, while the notion of responsibility is more elusive still.


Historically, there has been much interest in the identities of teachers as professionals in the public sector (see, for example, Alsup, 2006; Akkerman and Meijer, 2011; Sutherland et al., 2010; Beijaard et al., 2004). Most commentators have suggested that one’s professional identity is deeply related to, but distinct from, one’s personal identity (Beijaard et al., 2004) or, as suggested by Sutherland et al., (2010), is a facet of the many components that make up an individual’s identity. In any case, a teacher’s personal identity and professional identity are both deeply rooted in their background, experiences, social and professional position, and, crucially, their own interpretation of these variables (Gee, 2000). It could be argued, therefore, that it is impossible for a teacher (or any other professional) to completely separate their personal and professional identities, and that all teachers should be aware of this.

Most commentators have acknowledged that an individual’s identity – especially their professional identity – is not static (Kerby, 1991; Coldron and Smith, 1999; Sutherland et al., 2010). Teacher identity is continually recast in the wake of one’s changing experiences, personal and professional development and interactions with pupils, colleagues and changing bureaucratic regimes. A ‘good’ teacher identity, therefore, is not one which is unwavering, but one that is ready, where necessary, to adapt to changing conditions and circumstances, and to respond to personal reflection and the constructive critique of colleagues. This flexibility of identity is noted in theoretical terms by Gee and Crawford (1998; cited in Beijaard et al., 2004:113), but in practice the story is familiar. We become ‘different people’ in different social and personal settings – the persona we present to the bank manager is not the one we present to our loved ones on a Friday evening; in school, our interaction with colleagues is not the same as that with pupils. Yet all of these ‘personas’ are related – they are all components of a person’s identity (Gee and Crawford, 1998, cited in Beijaard et al., 2004:113). At a higher level, Beijaard et al. (2004:122) argue that a positive teacher identity does not just answer the question “who am I?” but also “who do I want to become?” – implying that continual personal development is integral to professional identity.

This professional identity informs and guides one’s actions as a teacher – in pedagogy, classroom practice and in interaction with other professionals (Sutherland et al., 2010). In practice, this envelops both pedagogy and behaviour leadership: it determines what the teacher believes is important, what they believe is indispensable and what they believe is of little consequence. Perhaps most fundamentally, a teacher’s identity reveals why they became a teacher in the first place, and what they perceive their role – and the role of education in society – to be.


The concept of teacher responsibility is most easily viewed as having two alternate, though not necessarily mutually exclusive, dimensions: ‘responsibility for’ and ‘responsibility to’.

Responsibility ‘for’

At the most basic level, ‘responsibility for’ can be understood simply as a job description. In this sense, a teacher has responsibility for duties such as planning and delivering lessons, maintaining a positive learning environment and marking work, Proctor et al. (1995, p91). These things, of course, constitute the ‘front line’ of education and are an integral and inherent part of the teacher’s role. This model of professional responsibility grants the teacher a certain amount of power or agency (see Coldron and Smith, 1999) and, at least in theory, a clearly defined set of responsibilities guards against the worst excesses of teacher recklessness or “arbitrariness” (Møller, 2009: 40).

However, I argue that the framing of teacher’s role solely in terms of what they have ‘responsibility for’ is, in both theory and in practice, limiting and potentially damaging. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, such a conceptualisation reduces the teacher’s role to a series of procedural steps that lacks wider context, and stresses the act itself without reference to the reasoning or meaning behind it (Louden and Wildy, 1999). In other words, the focus is on the objective ‘what’ and not the ‘who’, the ‘how’ or the ‘why’. Secondly, if the role of the teacher is understood solely as ‘responsibility for’, there exists the danger that the consequences of actions (or inactions) are only considered at the scale of the individual. If a professional simply has ‘responsibility for’ a list of duties, the potential consequences of non-fulfilment or non-compliance are, for the individual, short-term and entirely personal: the disapproval of management, disciplinary action or some other undesired outcome. This creates an introspective, hierarchical and strictly linear environment in which the primary, or the only, professional relationship is that between subordinates and superiors (Ranson, 2003).

Responsibility ‘to’

Alternately, the notion of responsibility may be understood as ‘responsibility to’. This conceptualisation of responsibility promotes a deeper and more holistic view of the role of the teacher which moves beyond the linear and introspective view of professional responsibility created by the ‘responsibility for’. Møller (2009) suggests that responsibility and accountability, in the educational context, have four dimensions (political and public, managerial, professional and personal).

Chart regarding teacher responsibility and accountability

Figure 1. Summary of dimensions and directionality of teacher responsibility and accountability. Adapted from Møller (2009:39)

If a teacher’s professional responsibilities are conceptualised in this way, focus shifts away from simply the ‘what’ and towards the ‘who’ – with the crucial realisation that the teacher’s role, mandate and influence extend beyond the immediate and the personal (Reynolds, 1996). Møller (2009) conceptualises professional relationships in education as existing in three directions: upwards, sideways and inwards. Upwards responsibility is that associated with one’s position in a hierarchical system, and involves ‘standard’ worker-line manager relationships and internal chains of command (Gee, 2000). Furthermore, schools – like other human environments – nearly always have additional relationship networks which transcend formal line-managed structures and which may be based as much on personalities as on defined roles (O’Day, 2002:297; Axelrod and Cohen, 1999:xi). These ‘unwritten’ and ‘unspoken’ relationships and power structures can extend to, and pervade, such aspects of school functioning as staffroom seating, stock control of consumable resources and, in some cases, to the allocation of classes, support staff and even job roles. One must learn to navigate the unwritten and unspoken friendship groups and power networks that underpin, any in many cases truly govern, the day-to-day functioning of the school. In a wider sense, Møller (2009:40) also regards upwards responsibility as the recognition that education is, from the perspective of the pupil, linear or at least progressive. This means that teachers have responsibility to teachers ‘further up’ the school system and in practice involves, for instance, ensuring as far as possible that curriculum requirements are met, that misconceptions are addressed as they arise and that assessment is carried out accurately and honestly.

Sideways responsibility is conceptualised in two dimensions. In one sense, teachers have responsibility to other teachers – both in the immediate context of a school or setting, and, in a wider way, as part of a national or international profession with a distinct role and identity (Sutherland et al., 2010). Each member of the profession has responsibility to all other members to uphold its values and standards, in accordance with the particular orthodoxy of the place and time. In the other sense, teachers have responsibility to the wider society of which they are a part, and to the mandate of the democratically-elected controllers of education policy at national and local levels (Gee, 2000; Volkmann and Anderson, 1998). This involves exhibiting and encouraging such values as respect, friendship, justice and courage (MacIntyre, 1982; 1988, cited in Ranson, 2003: 461), and teaching skills which will serve not only pupils as individuals, but will also enable them to contribute fully to a happier, healthier, more prosperous and more socially just society in the future (Soder, 2005). Additionally, and perhaps more controversially, this aspect of professional responsibility might stress the duty of teachers to implement – in good faith – such directives as the National Curriculum and attendant assessment regimes, recognising that the democratically-elected government of the day has the right, and the duty, to shape education policy.

Finally, Møller’s conceptualisation (2009:40) includes an inwards direction of responsibility: that is, the teacher’s responsibility to themselves to live and work according to universal and personal values (Reynolds, 1996), to accept managerial, professional and public responsibility and – at least in theory – to honour personal responsibilities by maintaining a sustainable balance between work and recreational and relaxation activities. This inward responsibility also extends, crucially, to continuous personal improvement (Beijaard et al., 2004: 122; Kerby, 1991) driven by honest and meaningful self-reflection and by valuing and implementing the critique and best-practice of others.

An understanding of the dimensions of teacher responsibility is not complete unless the pupils themselves, and their parents, are considered. Responsibility to pupils covers the familiar territory of creating and maintaining a safe environment (both physically and emotionally) of planning and teaching high-quality, creative and challenging lessons, responding to the individual and collective needs of pupils and enabling and encouraging academic and personal progress. Responsibility to parents involves engaging in regular, open and honest dialogue, and reflects the fact that parents have entrusted their child to the care of the teacher, the school and the “system” (Dunn, 1988).

In summary, the defining feature of meaningful professional responsibility is the recognition that one’s relationships exist – and that one’s behaviour has consequences – in multiple directions beyond a subordinate-superior hierarchy.


Accountability – both as a term and as a concept - surfaces frequently in theory, in practice and in political contestation (Møller, 2009; O’Day, 2002; Ranson, 2003). As Møller (2009) observes, the term is usually regarded as associated, or even coterminous, with responsibility. However, I suggest that viewing the concepts as related but distinct offers a more useful perspective in both theory and in practice.

In a basic sense, accountability can be regarded as the practice – by choice or by obligation – of answering for one’s actions, especially the results or consequences of one’s decisions, actions or inactions (Møller, 2009). Giddens (1984; cited in Ranson, 2003: 461) defines professional accountability as explaining the reasons for one’s actions and supplying the normative justification of those actions. In the educational context, this would mean the teacher ‘narrating’ what has occurred in their classroom and why, with particular regard to the outcomes for pupils. Møller (2009: 38) refers to this as a “story of practice” and considers it an obligation – or a responsibility – that education professionals have to each other. Telling and listening to “stories of practice” with school colleagues enables the sharing of best practice and good ideas and fosters mutual understanding (Ranson, 2003: 461). Møller (2009: 41) suggests that these localised and deeply contextualised “stories of practice” – which in schools happen routinely, informally and almost subconsciously – are particularly effective as they have the greatest specific relevance to a teacher’s practice.

This, as Møller (2009) argues, creates a multi-layered and multidirectional relationship of control, trust and improvement within a setting, and in a wider sense in teaching as a profession, which, in turn, fosters a sense of shared responsibility (Dunn, 1988). The inwards dimension of professional accountability might, here, involve an honest assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses, consciously learning from one’s own practice and developing one’s subject and pedagogical expertise – all undertaken in a systematic and demonstrable way (Kerby, 1991).

There is a degree of overlap between the two ‘sideways’ dimensions of accountability in Møller’s model (2009: 38). The process by which a person becomes a qualified teacher is strenuous – involving academic study to at least degree level and a specified amount of formally observed and assessed teaching practice. This creates a bond of trust and assumed competence between education professionals, and legitimises the profession and its members to the wider public (Sutherland et al., 2010; Dunn, 1988).

The upwards or managerial dimension of professional accountability is, by far, the most complex and contested in theory, in practice and in debate (see, for example, Møller 2009; Ranson, 2003; O’Day, 2002). Inter- or intra-professional accountability and responsibility have a degree of universality (MacIntyre, 1982; 1988, cited in Ranson, 2003: 461): such constants as a safe and welcoming environment, well-prepared, stimulating and challenging lessons and the appropriate leadership of behaviour are considered necessary by all but the most radical of thinkers (Proctor et al., 1995:9). Managerial accountability, however, is always determined and characterised by the established orthodoxy of the place and time (Elliot, 2001). Additionally, whilst personal and professional accountability and responsibility have been conceptualised as multilateral and largely reciprocal (Dunn, 1988), managerial accountability tends to be strictly linear.

The nature of managerial accountability

The first point to be made is that a certain degree of managerial accountability is desirable if not necessary. This, in whatever form it takes, guards against “arbitrariness” (Møller, 2009: 40) or extreme waywardness in the classroom, and is a component of the trust placed by parents and the wider public in the education system (Sutherland et al., 2010; Dunn, 1988). The strenuous process of teacher training and recruitment serves to legitimate the professional judgement of teachers and to secure and maintain public trust in the long term (Sutherland et al., 2010).

Ranson (2003:461) argues that, since the end of the 1970s, governments of both political leanings have believed that public trust is best secured, or can only be secured, by objective data and by systems that enforce regulatory compliance. Ranson (ibid.) characterises this as a gradual but distinctive shift from an “age of professionalism” to an “age of accountability” (see also O’Neill, 2002; Gleeson and Husbands, 2001). The key characteristics of this transition are summarised in figure 2, below.

“Age of professionalism”

“Age of accountability”

Professional judgement revered as authoritative and sufficient

Teachers viewed as autonomous

Professional judgement must be informed and justified by objective evidence

Desire for public scrutiny of every aspect of education (O’Neill, 2002)

Primary responsibility for pupil motivation and progress lies with the pupil and their parents

Primary responsibility for pupil motivation and progress lies with the teacher

Consequences of poor pupil performance borne by the pupil

Consequences of poor pupil performance borne by the teacher and the school (O’Day, 2002)

General expectations of teacher conduct
and pedagogy

Detailed, prescriptive intervention into education at every level
(Gleeson and Husbands, 2001)

‘Performativity’ driven by targets, measures and record-keeping
(Ranson, 2003)

Assessment of performance always linked to established standards (Elliot, 2001)

Accountability is continuous, informal and anecdotal

Accountability occurs at defined points, and is heavily reliant on quantitative information (Dunsire, 1978: 41)

Figure 2. Summary of Ranson’s (2003) shift from an “age of professionalism” to an “age of accountability”

In the “age of accountability”, student outcomes are emphasised as the primary indicator of the performance of teachers, schools and ‘the system’ as a whole (O’Day, 2002). Louden and Wildy (1999) characterise this as a shift in emphasis from the “supply-side” (that is, pedagogy) to the “demand-side” (that is, pupil outcomes) of education. The focus on measurable pupil progress has resulted in a proliferation of data (Dunsire, 1978: 41), which is then aggregated and released to schools and the general public as a bewildering array of datasets, measures and performance indicators. Increasingly, it is this data – and this data alone - that is used to measure ‘success’ at school level (O’Day, 2002: 296).

Additionally, Ranson (2003: 460) characterises managerial accountability as being “rooted in the hierarchical processes of bureaucracy”. In this sense, accountability does not solely involve reflection and continuous improvement among colleagues, but also requires objective justification of one’s actions and their consequences to an individual or organisation with higher authority. The constraints of placing the primary means of teacher accountability into a managerial hierarchy are, I suggest, twofold.

Firstly, managerial accountability cannot be anecdotal. There is thus an increased reliance on data that can be condensed, standardised and compared objectively, and the need, by schools and therefore by teachers, to generate such data (O’Day, 2002). Secondly, managerial accountability cannot be continuous, and is therefore experienced by schools and teachers as discrete ‘events’ – most often as standardised assessments and the subsequent publication of the ‘results’ of these. Additionally, and somewhat paradoxically, there appears to be a general feeling that all of a teacher’s decisions and actions are under close and continuous scrutiny, as is the ‘work’ that pupils produce. O’Day (2002: 297) and Ball (2001) observe that this creates a culture of “performativity” at the scale of both the school and the classroom: it is as if both teacher ‘input’ and pupil ‘output’ must not merely be addressed to each other, but also to an invisible but ever-present and all-powerful observer.

Unsurprisingly, this form of managerial accountability has been critiqued extensively in the literature (see, for example, Møller, 2009; Ranson, 2003; O’Day, 2002; Louden and Wildy, 1999). Ranson (2003) presents three fundamental critiques of managerial accountability. Firstly, because teacher accountability is rooted so firmly in hierarchy and bureaucracy, and because it is based on periodical reporting of objective data, it takes a punitive, disciplinary nature that denies teachers agency, casts doubt on their professional judgement and pedagogy and creates an atmosphere of mistrust. Secondly, Ranson (ibid.) suggests that the culture of “performativity” generates teacher and school identities that are primarily driven by targets, records and numerical indicators – in other words, being a “better” teacher or school is about getting “better” data. O’Day (2002) notes a fundamental problem here: in most cases, the school is the unit of accountability and intervention, and yet the unit of action is the individual – the teacher and, ultimately, the pupil. Louden and Wildy (1999) argue that this separates the “performance” from the context in which it occurs, and therefore downplays the importance and value of instantaneous and deeply contextualised peer-to-peer accountability.

Finally, Ranson (2003) argues that the reliance on systematic mechanisms of control and measurement ultimately causes all accountability regimes to fail to achieve the ‘improvement’ they are designed to create. The routine is familiar: the government believes that educational performance is best assured and improved by a system of standardised measures and indicators that will stand up to public scrutiny. With considerable upheaval, a new regime of managerial accountability is implemented. Because managerial accountability cannot be continuous and cannot be anecdotal, it is reduced to a “snapshot” – both in time and in content – that inevitably fails to meet its stated purpose and is therefore replaced, with enormous upheaval, with another regime that is even more comprehensive, detailed and prescriptive. Here, Ranson (2003) illustrates how managerial accountability is self-perpetuating and soon becomes “out of control”.

Møller (2009) critiques managerial accountability as it assumes that pupils ‘do better’ if they are subjected to regular, objective and standardised assessment, and that schools and teachers ‘do better’ if they are regularly given aggregated data about these assessments. This neglects, of course, those aspects of education which cannot be easily measured objectively (Soder, 2005) – such aspects as friendship, security, self-esteem and finding and developing one’s place in the world (MacIntyre, 1982; 1988, cited in Ranson, 2003: 461). We arrive, here, at the fundamental point: there exists conflict between the requirements of the regime of managerial accountability, and the professional identity of the teacher.

Reconciling identity, responsibility and accountability

The analysis and exploration presented thus far in the article has suggested that there exists a fundamental conflict between teacher identity and the regime of managerial accountability that, in the present context, teachers inevitably find themselves in. This tension has been noted by several observers. Volkmann and Anderson (1988) conceptualise it as a gap between ‘self-image’ and the role teachers feel they are required to play in any given educational context. Coldron and Smith (1999) observe the tension that exists between agency (what an individual might want to do) and the imposed structure of the educational orthodoxy of the day. Teacher identity – with its values, beliefs and principles – is, as has been demonstrated, constrained by accountability.

If accountability acts as a constraint to identity, I argue that responsibility can be viewed as reconciling them to each other. Teachers, quite rightly, have identities and ideals, and intensely value-laden views about their role, and about the function of education within society. We have opinions on “what school should be all about”, and on what the curriculum should and should not attempt to do. We all have visions for the young minds that we have – for a short time – the privilege of guiding and inspiring. And yet we have the responsibility to acknowledge that the educational orthodoxy of the day, with its attendant regimes of managerial accountability, is an unavoidable reality. This means implementing in good faith the decisions made by those who have the democratic mandate to formulate education policy at the national and local level. At the same time, teachers must recognise the responsibility they have to pupils and parents: to not prioritise the teacher’s own identity in a way that would disadvantage them, and to mitigate the worst excesses of accountability regimes by supporting, encouraging, maintaining self-esteem and ensuring that school remains a positive, engaging and worthwhile experience. In this sense, it is perhaps responsibility that has the greatest impact on our own classroom culture, because it mediates the extremes of identity and accountability.


“Students determined to be radical visionaries will be disappointed when they reach practice” (Burton, 2004:257)

There is a certain inevitability about this aphorism. There is, indeed, a large difference between the visionary ideals of teacher identities, and the practical realities of the education system. This article has attempted to reconcile the concepts of identity, responsibility and accountability in a way that is relevant for those, like me, who are about to embark on teaching careers. I have argued that these concepts need to be understood fully if the required balance between the opposing ideals of identity and accountability is to be achieved – in theory or in practice. Responsibility serves as the reconciling intermediary, curbing the worst excesses of teacher waywardness and softening the harshest blows of accountability regimes. There is, as ever, far more work to be done here – both in terms of theoretical understanding and in practical advice for those about to venture into practice. ‘Finding’ responsibility between identity and responsibility was certainly a moment of clarity and encouragement for me, and I hope it might be for others, too.

Read 'Speaking the target language outside the classroom...'


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