This month our What if…? debate tackled a reoccurring theme from the series – how we hold schools to account and the impact that has on how schools are run and what they provide for their pupils. This issue is particularly topical at the moment, as Ofsted is consulting on a proposed new inspection framework that could depart in significant ways from the current approach.
The need for regulation on matters such as health and safety is not in question. And few would argue that there should be no monitoring whatsoever of schools’ performance in terms of what they do and what their pupils achieve. But it is now very apparent that there is a fine balance to be struck in designing accountability measures if we are to gain the benefits (raising the floor on standards and providing information for stakeholders) without experiencing downsides. The negative impacts of the combination of inspection and performance indicators we have in place now, which largely leads off from high-stakes testing, are widely believed to outweigh the benefits.
As well as failing to provide a valid picture of school performance (or a useful one for parents), this combination is variously blamed for precipitating a narrowing of the curriculum, an instrumental approach to learning, and a decline in well-being for pupils and staff. Various reviews have sought to highlight these problems and propose alternatives, most recently Improving School Accountability from the NAHT Accountability Commission, and the Ethical Leadership Commission report, which responds at least in part to the pressures created by the accountability apparatus.
So, we wanted to take stock of that wider dialogue within the schools system: what are the prospects for a different kind of accountability system, one that supports high standards but avoids the kind of pitfalls outlined? And what might that look like? Our panelists were: Geoff Barton, ASCL General Secretary; Nick Brook, Deputy General Secretary, NAHT; Ed Dorrell, Deputy Editor at the TES; and Natalie Perera, Executive Director of the Education Policy Institute.
What we need
As for the wider dialogue on school accountability, our panelists found broad consensus across several themes, in particular, the need for:
- Performance indicators and inspection frameworks that sufficiently take into account contextual/pupil demographic factors (recent analysis of the Progress 8 measure highlighting a case in point).
- A check on whether an exclusive focus on output measures (pupil attainment), as opposed to inputs (such as teacher access to professional development) is fit-for-purpose.
- Stronger incentives for collaboration and a community focus on the part of schools. (Should a school be able to achieve an ‘outstanding’ inspection grade from Ofsted if a nearby school has been rated ‘requires improvement’ or worse?)
- Assessment of what schools are achieving for their most vulnerable pupils, and not just in terms of attainment in Key Stage tests.
- A greater diagnostic and developmental orientation for inspection. There was particular scorn for the policy of not inspecting ‘outstanding’ schools with the same frequency as other schools (if nothing else a ‘neat’ means of increasing the proportion of ‘outstanding’ schools in the system… Some 300 ‘outstanding’ schools haven’t been inspected for over 10 years.).
How we can get there
The general view was that the teaching profession will need to step forward and take ownership of accountability, to push for these kind of changes. A reconfigured and revitalised network of Teaching Schools was also mooted, as was a system of peer review (which the NAHT is currently working on taking to scale). A currently fashionable notion is that teachers should take back control of their profession by taking hold of the evidence. But, as one of our panellists asserted, this is arguably a naïve, if not flawed position. We live in a democracy, not a technocracy, and education is highly political. We need a confident, proud teaching profession that is closely engaged with the often ideological and value-laden political debate, to make the case for more intelligent and productive accountability measures, to policy makers and public alike, and to make local systems like peer review stand scrutiny. Over to you.
Watch/listen to the debate in full here.