This is the first in a series of blogs from the NGA team on the related topics of accountability, oversight and support.
I was privileged to have served on NAHT’s Accountability Commission which reports today and I commend their recommendations to you.
In a nutshell, we decided that the time had come to stop setting numerical targets for tests and exams. The Secretary of State for Education had begun this conversation at NAHT’s conference in May and as Damian Hinds MP reminded us at NGA’s conference:
“Vital as accountability is, the current system that we have can lead to stress and anxiety for some teachers, leaders and governors - the fear of inspection, of a single bad results year, the fear of the school being made to convert to an academy.”
“I want to recast accountability not as something to be feared, or a blame game - but rather analysing what’s not working and then fixing it, collaboratively.”
Big data gives us the start of the conversation, not the end; I remember when progress 8 replaced 5 A-C’s everyone welcomed it as an improvement. But a few years on, its shortcomings are now becoming obvious. It is providing an excuse to narrow options and is more difficult to achieve in disadvantaged areas. Every alternative had other downsides – and so we came to the conclusion neatly summarised by the adage “when a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure”. But of course we are not against transparency, data would still be published. Openness is one of the Nolan principles; I suggest we need more transparency rather than less. Emphasis needs to be on the data being meaningful, and the commission agreed three-year averages were the most reliable.
We still need some way of identifying the schools in need of the support offered by the Secretary of State. Schools identified as requiring improvement by Ofsted seemed to present the obvious solution. No parallel system needed. Also the fact that support is being offered rather than a punishment should reduce what senior leaders refer to as high stakes accountability.
There were also recommendations about development leadership, in particular through peer review and collaboration: a school-led approach.
However a lot of questions are left unanswered: in particular what does the support package being offered to requiring improvement schools look like? Who brokers it? Who provides it? Certainly not Ofsted, although their inspection report could advise what support would be useful in the areas which had been identified as needing improvement. Let’s see the response the Commission report receives from the powers that be: I look forward to continuing those important conversations.
As the report acknowledges, another unexamined area was that of governance: as I argue at every opportunity – governance is one of the many way in which schools (and indeed every other public service) is held to account. If governing boards took their rightful place in the complicated system of school oversight, then we would not need quite so many external levers. That is a subject for another day, but I will be thrilled if we can get to the point when senior leaders in the school system stop defining accountability as numerical targets and Ofsted. There are other more intelligent ways to hold schools to account – and perhaps we can get onto this broader, more mature discussion once we have got rid of crude targets which are holding our schools hostage.
The report is available to download here. If you want to know more about the report, see our next issue of Governing Matters and come and hear Nick Brook, the chair of Accountability Commission speak at our annual conference on Saturday 17th November in Birmingham.
The case for change
The Improving School Accountability report sets out a seven-point “case for change” outlining how the current accountability system is failing and the deeply negative effect it is having on schools. In abridged form, the seven failings highlighted are that the current system:
- Limits ambition. The high-stakes nature of inspection has helped to create a compliance culture in many schools which disincentivises innovation and can limit ambition. Securing a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ judgement from Ofsted has become a goal in itself, rather than being seen as a snapshot of where a school is on its journey to excellence.
- Incentivises self-interest. There are few incentives for strong schools to lend their strength to those that are struggling, if by doing so it weakens them at their next inspection. Similarly, the over-reliance on pupil performance data to judge school effectiveness means there is little incentive to put the interest of children with more complex needs first.
- Deters talented staff from working in more deprived communities. School leaders and teachers are put off teaching in schools serving more challenging communities because they do not believe they will be treated fairly by the inspectorate or performance tables.
- Narrows the curriculum and encourages teaching to the test. The nature and weight of the accountability system has encouraged schools to focus on those areas critical as school performance indicators, such as Key Stage 2 SATs, EBacc subjects or Progress 8. Despite the importance of an academic core, this over-emphasis has skewed and narrowed the curriculum.
- Diverts attention from teaching and learning. The value of a good inspection outcome and the fear of not being “Ofsted-ready” drives considerable activity in too many schools that could be better spent focused on improving teaching and learning, and creates significant extra workload burden. Too much time can be spent scrutinising data and too little on the leadership of learning.
- Drives good people from the profession. Fear, or the impact, of inspection is regularly recorded as a significant factor behind head teachers choosing to leave the profession prematurely, as well as influencing middle leaders not to progress to senior roles.
- Provides less assurance of standards. The inspectorate provides much less independent assurance about the quality of education provided by individual schools than was previously the case. Ofsted no longer has the capacity or resources to inspect schools in any real depth. It is harder to make reliable and valid judgements about the quality of teaching in a school when often inspectors only have a few hours in which to do so.
The key recommendations from the Improving School Accountability:
Pupil performance data
1. Comparative performance data (based on a three-year average) is the most reliable data indicator currently available and should be used by Ofsted to inform judgements of school effectiveness.
2. The DfE should use a ‘requires improvement’ judgement as the trigger for funded support and as a replacement for floor and coasting standards.
3. The Commission proposes a new role for Ofsted, focused on identifying failure and providing stronger diagnostic insight for schools that are struggling.
4. The DfE should end the exemption from inspection for previously ‘outstanding’ schools and commit Ofsted to inspect all schools on a transparent cycle of inspection.
5. The ‘outstanding’ judgement should be replaced with a more robust system for identifying specific excellence within the sector, to increase the take-up of highly effective, evidence-based practice.
6. Ofsted should commission research to determine the format and nature of inspection required, in order to provide reliable judgements and reciprocal benefits for schools.
7. Existing peer review programmes should be evaluated to identify characteristics of effective practice in order to develop national accreditation arrangements.
8. An invitation should be extended to the Chartered College of Teaching, through the Leadership Development Advisory Group, to produce alternative national standards for head teachers that better reflect the professional behaviours, practice and knowledge required for achieving excellence.
9. The DfE should extend the career progression strategy to support recently appointed head teachers in the critical first years of headship.