Accountability: How some schools are gaming the system

Written by: Brian Rossiter | Published:
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Recent research suggests some schools are going to extreme lengths to game the accountability system – even excluding or managing pupils out. Brian Rossiter offers his commentary on these disturbing findings

From the early days of the school league tables, “gaming” has been associated with the accountability system. The uneasy relationships that have developed between schools and the system have rarely received public notice. Amanda Spielman, the Ofsted chief inspector, and Sir David Carter, the national schools commissioner, recently made explicit something that has been a concern for many of us for many years.

An issue that previously went uncontested is that some schools have been taking perverse actions to improve their position in the league tables and to protect their status within the education system. This can be at the expense of other local schools and certainly at the expense of the learners within the school system.

Ms Spielman, Sir David and the secretary of state are all calling for academies and particularly those in multi-academy trusts (MATs) and chains to work for the benefit of all children (not just those that they wish to engage with) and not engage in perversely obscene activity at the expense of surrounding schools and the local community.

Sir David, at the recent Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) annual conference, said: “At the macro level, at a very simple level, don’t take a decision on behalf of your trust that’s going to have a negative impact on someone else’s.”

He went on: “... if (MATs) are not collaborative with other trusts, and other Teaching Schools, we’re going to have an isolated system on a different scale in 10 years’ time.”

He also went on to describe leaders of MATs as the “guardians of the trusts’ moral purpose”, focusing on improvement across all of their schools. Sir David repeated this theme in speeches around the commissioner regions to regional schools commissioners, headteachers, principals and MAT leaders. His emphasis has been on working cooperatively and to stop gaming the system.

One perverse action concerns the absorption of schools into MATs. There is evidence that when a school joins a trust, or a school is sponsored, the trust may consider introducing a new behaviour management system. There is no problem with that.

However, if the new behaviour management system results in large numbers of permanently excluded learners or learners who are persuaded to leave or be “managed moved” out of an academy that has been taken into a trust then that is a problem.

There are two issues here: first, these learners need to be in education and as such other local schools will be required to take them on. The problem has been shifted but...

The second issue is that permanently excluded learners or those being persuaded to move to a different school are having their education disrupted.

That means their life chances are potentially disrupted.

Of the new MATs/chains some are highly inclusive and they do everything they can to maintain students within their organisation. School leaders have always had concerns about the welfare and subsequent outcomes of learners who have to move schools for whatever reason. Reality says that there will be behaviour that warrants permanent exclusion. Systems exist to formally achieve this. We are held accountable for such decisions.

And what about moving a learner out because they may affect a school’s outcomes or status or to show that new leadership is tough on discipline? At this point you question if the suggestion to move or even the leap to early expulsion is a moral act or not. This is not to say that all sponsors engage in this type of activity, though I would argue from evidence that some do.

A recent report from researchers at Education Datalab (Who’s Left? January 2017) looked at leaver rates by year of academisation after stripping out general leaver rates. They analysed up to three years of data for 149 schools. The headline outcome of this research was to show that more pupils leave schools when they become sponsored academies than when they are under local authority control.

Commenting on this report in February, Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said that the data pointed to the “pernicious effect of high-stakes, short-term, data-driven accountability”.

In the early days of the league tables, and even now, we read newspaper headlines highlighting the virtues of the 100 per cent five A* to C-achieving schools. They were, and still are, regarded as centres of excellence that we should all look to for guidance. Schools do just that. We have all been looking at strategies to lever our way up the league tables.

Some schools, however, have chosen to restrict choices to learners or alternatively use low value courses and their grade equivalents to improve their league table position. There was a time when one vocational qualification was worth the equivalent of four GCSEs. Some used this qualification route as a way to improve their league table positions.

The government saw what was happening and quite rightly removed the unbalanced equivalency thus reducing the opportunity to inflate a school’s position. Importantly, many of the vocational qualifications still exist with much reduced equivalence to provide appropriate pathways for learners.

Today some schools continue to restrict the curriculum for the benefit of the school and not the learner. For their own reasons some are severely reducing the maximum number of GCSEs their learners can take. A broad, balanced and appropriate curriculum to 16 may not be accessible to learners. They may only able to take up to six GCSEs allowing them to gain the five A* to C including English and maths and have a good foothold on the EBacc ladder and also gain essential positivity for the Progress 8 measure (however difficult that may be to define this year).

Another activity I would consider dubious has been taking cohorts out of GCSE during normal school time for crash entry to the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL), or its use as a replacement for GCSEs. This has at last been recognised and ECDL has just been withdrawn from the Technical Award list for 2018 which means it will no longer count in performance tables from summer 2018.

The retrospective nature of the removal is unfortunate, the move itself a realisation of an unfairness. I would argue that ECDL should be an additional complementary activity giving learners a qualification that can be considered by employers in later life.

League table positions have been artificially manipulated by the direction of learners to particular courses for the benefit of the school and to the disadvantage of the learner. I am all for highlighting the excellent performance of learners and the dedication of teams of staff to that success in schools, but not at the expense of restricting future pathways for learners for the sake of a short-lived headline.

There is also evidence of MAT/chain sponsors rejecting the opportunity take more challenging schools in to their trust. One such example is a letter from a potential sponsor to a very challenging school in significantly challenging circumstances that says that their MAT will not consider taking the school into their Trust because it will “...taint their brand”.

The implication behind this is that some MATs and chains will take the easy option when choosing schools to take into their trust, and ignore or leave behind all those schools that really do need support.

In her speech to ASCL in March, the secretary of state said: “I believe strongly in the school-led system – taking what happens in the very best classrooms and schools in this country and spreading it, driving improvement through collaboration and school-to-school support.

“I want to ensure we develop a full national network of Teaching Schools and prioritise attracting good sponsors and growing MAT capacity in challenging areas, ensuring our best tools for improvement are not just concentrated where they are easiest to establish.

“Ensuring that the support and school improvement activity that is carried out by these system leaders is really reaching the schools that need it most.”

As the chair of trustees of a small MAT, I strongly believe that we are obliged to act for all the learners within our trust. We are obliged to support all academies who wish to join our MAT; to support them actively as well as verbally; to provide core services and advice, supporting those in support teams as well as within classrooms. We have a duty to support other academies and MATs should they be in trouble or should they just wish to further develop a specific area. We take what expertise we have and we share it and importantly we embrace expertise wherever it comes from.

Brian Lightman, former ASCL general secretary, said recently that “hardly any (school leaders) are cheats and the term ‘gaming’, so often carelessly thrown about, implies a general lack of moral purpose that insults the majority of school leaders”.

I agree with him but, and the all important but, some organisations do cheat and until they are held accountable for their actions, those that hold the “moral” high ground will continue to question whether they should in Mr Lightman’s words “be confident and stick to their own vision”. They should!

In 1995 Lord Nolan set out “The Principles for Public Life”. His seven principles apply to anyone who works as a public office-holder and are also enshrined in the Ministerial Code. They apply to all those in all sectors that deliver public services including education.

One of the principles is entitled “Selflessness – to act for the greater good, not for our own power, status or relationships”. Hopefully the final whistle is now blowing on those few, but significantly influential organisations, that wish to game the system. Our young people and communities deserve to be served by a “selfless” education system.

  • Brian Rossiter is a former headteacher, an education consultant and chair of the L.E.A.P. multi-academy trust in Rotherham.

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