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Accountability: moving on from the tyranny of numbers


We very much welcome the Secretary of State for Education’s commitment made in a speech last week to the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) annual conference to provide clarity on the accountability system for state schools and its consequences. Damian Hinds MP acknowledged: “At present, it can be unclear to school leaders what will happen as a result of Ofsted judgements or performance data”.  

We will participate enthusiastically in the DfE’s forthcoming review, as without a doubt the over-reliance on specific data we have got ourselves into has created an unhealthy culture in our schools. It is time we worked out how to measure - in the broadest sense - what we value. We need a much more intelligent system of accountability, not tyranny by numbers.  And I speak as someone who is very happy playing with spreadsheets – years ago I was involved in social policy research with huge data sets – of course numbers have their place, but to give us questions to ask, rather than the answers.

This announcement is a really significant move away from the regime of many years with its perverse incentives and diminution of trust, and we have a real possibility of designing something so much better. To achieve a mature, nuanced system of ensuring schools are the best they can be and pupils get a great education, surely we need to look across the full range of what accountability of public services encompasses. The Secretary of State limited himself largely to the role of Ofsted and performance measures, such as floor targets, and their consequences. That is perhaps unsurprising as it is mistake that the schools sector commonly makes, but public accountability is so much more than that.

There are many ways of holding public services, and those who lead public services, to account. They can be described – and grouped - in a number of ways. There is no one universally agreed set of various dimensions of public accountability, but here’s a growing list I have been compiling (with thanks to many far more learned commentators):     

  1. Democratic: central and local
  2. Legal: including legislation, statutory guidance, case law
  3. Inspectorates: Ofsted
  4. Transparency: including publication of performance standards
  5. Scrutiny processes: national, local (some of which are performed by democratic bodies but not exclusively eg National Audit Office)  
  6. Media: mainstream, education, social
  7. Social accountability: by civil society and to the community
  8. Stakeholders: and in the case of schools, parental and pupil engagement
  9. Governing boards: internal accountability, which also includes managerial accountability
  10. Professional accountability: including by peers. This is often missing from some public service literature, but is significant in others (such as in the health service, which is also very strong on responsibility to the patient) and I believe it is relevant to the current context where accountability is described as high stakes and lacking in trust.

Some argue that for schools, parental choice – perhaps more accurately described as parental preference – provides a further dimension of accountability by creating a market. But to me, this plays a different role in the system, including being a spur to less popular schools to make changes. Whereas all the others are a fundamental component of accountability, a quasi-market - based on the preferences of parents given the options facing them - is not a necessary pre-requisite for a healthy accountability system in the same way as parental engagement should be. In some localities, parental preference simply does not exist - for example for secondary schools in rural areas, there is only one school within a reasonable distance to choose.

I was tempted to add parental complaints and whistleblowers to my list, but decided that although the information provided by them can be useful in holding an institution to account, it is an ad-hoc mechanism, rather than a fundamental method of accountability which requires a substantive and regular process. We shouldn’t rely on them for accountability.

The aim of accountability is to ensure that public officials or public bodies are performing to their full potential, providing value for money and being responsive to the community they are meant to be serving. Clarity is needed not only on how schools should be held to account, but for what and to whom. At NGA we are very keen that accountability to parents and to the community are given their rightful place in the discourse about schools.

I am lucky to be part of the on-going discussions of NAHT’s Accountability Commission which is also working on detailed proposals to feed into the DfE’s review. NGA has been saying that schools and trusts taking hold of their own destiny, as set out in our recent publication, Being Strategic,by agreeing strategic priorities and monitoring those is part of the solution.

It is probably worth stating the obvious: ensuring schools, academy trusts and their leaders are held to account is a different from improving and developing them. The system of support for schools – usually styled as the self- improving school system - is very much in need of discussion, and so we welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to “work with school leaders and others on a simpler, more accessible system of school improvement support. Alongside this, we will develop a parallel regime that will allow for more rigorous oversight and challenge on financial performance of academy trusts. And we will focus on how we can improve the effectiveness of governance in the sector more generally, including at MAT level.”

Damian Hinds MP will be addressing our summer conference on 9th June in Manchester. There are a few places left for NGA members if you haven’t booked already: but if you can’t join us, do please let me know what you would like to ask or suggest to the Secretary of State. How can we make our schools meaningfully accountable to the right people for the right things without swamping our school staff in additional work? Answers on a postcard please – or even comment below.  Please help us design a system which will really work in the interests of all our pupils

Emma Knights OBE
Emma Knights OBE

Co-Chief Executive

As NGA’s Co-Chief Executive, Emma promotes the interests of the school governance community nationally with legislators, policy makers, education sector organisations and the media. Emma is an accomplished writer and speaker on a range of school governance policy and practice topics.