Educational accountability, as defined in scholarly work, simply means the extent to which schools or other institutions are held accountable for their behaviour and performance by others. Answerability for performance is at the core of this relationship, where specific processes and measures such as high stakes testing or school inspections inform the way in which people or organizations are held to account.
This understanding of educational accountability is relatively ‘value-free’ and allows for a range of outcomes. Most systems aim for school improvement, but ‘capacity-building’ or ensuring schools adhere to legislation are also common outcomes. Ofsted’s new corporate strategy says that it aims ‘to be a force for improvement through intelligent, responsible and focused inspection and regulation’. Similarly, the Irish Inspectorate explains in its quality framework how it sees external inspections and internal evaluation as complementary contributors to school improvement and capacity building. An external perspective and assessment of key conditions of quality education (e.g. leadership, quality of teaching and learning), combined with the reflective and collective insights of school leaders, teachers, parents and pupils is expected to be an important driver for continuous improvement of schools.
These examples indicate the powerful opportunities for school accountability to provide performance feedback, informing and incentivising a continuous cycle of learning and positive change. However, at the chalk face, and in most countries, ‘educational accountability’ has a much less positive connotation. The term is often understood as punitive control and high stakes monitoring – seen to damage education and lower the morale of heads, teachers and students. For example, in June, a letter to The Guardian complained that ‘schools literally lived or died by the cosh of Ofsted reports’, while a TES column in September was headlined: ‘’Ofsted has done more damage to education in the UK than anything else’. In Ireland, articles in the Independent talk about increased scrutiny over school standards through follow-up inspection visits to ensure that schools implement improvements, ‘turning up the heat on teaching’.
The implication is that schools are unwilling to change without an external incentive to do so, implying that teachers and head teachers need ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ to be induced to develop desired behaviour. This argument is simplistic for various reasons: the reason for failing to meet inspection standards may be caused by a lack of capacity and resources (teacher shortage, recruitment problems), a lack of understanding of how to adhere to the inspection standards, or simply not knowing where to begin change and how to purposefully implement it.
As the Australian sociologist John Braithwaite convincingly explains, the most effective regulatory systems start with an assumption of trust in the profession and its willingness to improve. Not only are highly punitive systems considered to be illegitimate by those working in the system and, as a result, decrease the motivation to comply, but the costly nature of sanctions and support are also ineffective and may lead to ‘system overload’.
A much more effective and intelligent approach is one that would take into account the various reasons schools fail to improve. John Braithwaite’s concept of ‘responsible regulation’ provides an interesting starting point to develop such an approach.
He explains how regulation needs to be responsive to the moves that those who are being regulated make, to industry context and to the environment by having the capability to escalate to tough enforcement or enhanced support only when necessary. Responsive regulatory theory started out as a theory of business regulation but has now been applied to many other areas of private and public governance applications as well as education; it offers a powerful set of principles to understand and think about how to make a deliberative and flexible (responsive) choice from regulatory strategies and how to listen to multiple stakeholders in deciding on which sanctions and support and capacity-building to use to ensure effective improvement.
In this approach, sanctions and support are organised in two pyramids which include, at the bottom of the pyramid, more frequently used strategies of first choice that are less coercive, less interventionist, and cheaper, such as dialogue and feedback – an approach described as ‘restorative and dialogue-based’. Only when these strategies fail and schools are unwilling or unable to improve, do regulators move up the pyramid of supports; when that fails to solve specific problems sufficiently, the regulator moves to the right of the figure and starts to move up a pyramid of sanctions, using more punitive approaches when schools are resisting change, ultimately leading to school closure.
The idea of the pyramid is, according to Braithwaite, that our presumption should always be to start at the base first and only escalate to punitive approaches when dialogue fails. Starting with dialogue signals to schools that collaboration and trust are starting points for the accountability relationships and motivates early compliance and improvement. Having the capacity to escalate to ‘the tough stuff’ further supports interventions at the lower end of the pyramid as it motivates cooperative problem solving. It’s time to reframe educational accountability and implement more intelligent strategies to promote improvement instead of penalizing the entire profession for the failure and unwillingness to improve of only a few.