School accountability: The tide is slowly turning

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Geoff Barton, general secretary, Association of School and College Leaders

Proposed reforms from both Ofsted and the government seem to be positive steps forward against counter-productive, draconian and punitive school accountability, says Geoff Barton – yet the problems of Progress 8 remain...

“Accountability”. It’s an ugly word and at some point in our recent past we let it become something that was done to us by government and its agencies, rather than an evaluative mirror we held up to ourselves.

So what is accountability? What does it mean for schools and colleges? Now is a good time to ask because we appear, at last, to be turning a corner in terms of how schools are judged.

We have a new inspection framework from Ofsted which is currently out for consultation. Meanwhile, the Department for Education (DfE) plans to scrap the “floor” and “coasting” standards from the school performance tables.

The value of accountability lies entirely in assuring the quality of education we provide for young people and in safeguarding their best interests. And yet the accountability system applied to our schools has often been counter-productive. The language of inadequacy and under-performance is harsh, the sanctions draconian, the humiliation deep-rooted. The effect has been to stigmatise schools, making it harder for them to recruit staff, and demoralising pupils, parents and communities.

The recent publication of the school performance tables provided a harrowing illustration of the corrosive impact of the accountability system.

Its finding that 346 schools fell below the floor standard became this headline in The Sun: “Bad Education: England’s WORST schools revealed – full list of 2018’s under-performing secondary schools.”

Staff, pupils and parents reading the headline and the name of their school in this list will have felt utterly deflated. The fact that the floor standard is based upon the inherently flawed measure of Progress 8, and that performance data can never tell the whole story of a school, will have been of little comfort.

We may complain about the reporting in The Sun, and other newspapers, but it is simply a product of a punitive accountability system.

The application of a floor standard based on a complex data measurement is reducible to a stark headline. The DfE has nobody to blame but itself.

Thankfully, this should be the last time that the “floor” and “coasting” standards are applied.

The DfE is consulting on a change which would instead see Ofsted’s judgement of requires improvement used as the trigger point for school support. This requires some careful thought to make sure it works well in practice but it is a positive step forward.

The fact that it comes at a time when Ofsted is planning to place less emphasis on performance data and more on the quality of the curriculum further demonstrates a significant shift in thinking.

These reforms signal an understanding that accountability serves its purpose better if it is broad rather than narrow and if it triggers support rather than sanctions. If the purpose of accountability is to assure the quality of education for our pupils it needs to assess the right things and it must be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

We are not there yet. Progress 8 will continue to be the main headline measure in the school performance tables. While it is better than the old threshold measure of the percentage of pupils gaining at least a grade C in five GCSEs including English and maths, it is a long way from being perfect.

In Progress 8, the dice are loaded against schools which have a large number of disadvantaged pupils. Any system which actively penalises the schools that face the greatest degree of challenge surely has to be reformed.

And while there is much to welcome in Ofsted’s championing of the curriculum, the inspectorate will continue to apply the blunt instrument of graded judgements, and the government will continue to compel schools deemed to be inadequate to become academies.

Too often the result is that stigmatised schools are left in limbo, unable to secure long-term support because the academy system lacks sufficient capacity.

So, there is much to do. But, to paraphrase Barack Obama, let’s take hope from the fact that progress often comes in small increments.

It won’t seem like that if your school recently appeared on a list in a newspaper, but there are positive signs that the tide is turning on accountability.

And, ultimately, the most important beneficiaries of that change of thinking in our schools are just who it should be: our pupils.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. To read Geoff's previous blogs and best practice articles in SecEd, go to http://bit.ly/2C8BNkg

Further information

  • Consultation: Education inspection framework 2019: inspecting the substance of education, Ofsted, January 2019 (consultation closes April 5): http://bit.ly/2MrflYh
  • Identifying schools for support (consultation), DfE, January 2019 (closes March 25): http://bit.ly/2DBistK


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