Accountability: Low-level gaming is ‘rife’ and teaching to the test ‘endemic’

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Former number 10 policy advisor Julian Astle says the costs of the government’s ‘constantly shifting’ accountability system now outweigh any benefits. Pete Henshaw reports

Narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the test, and gaming the system – the educational costs of the government’s school accountability system are now outweighing the benefits.

This is the view of former Number 10 policy advisor Julian Astle, who has authored an in-depth essay based on his experiences touring the country looking for schools that are bucking these trends.

Published last week, The Ideal School Exhibition acknowledges the role that accountability has played in the last 25 years, notably in raising the basic standards of numeracy and literacy.

However, Mr Astle says that a growing “desperation” to meet the demands of the government’s accountability system is leading schools to take decisions that are “not in the long-term interests of pupils but are likely have a positive immediate impact on test scores”.

His essay highlights a “concerning trend” of “schools narrowing their focus, and hollowing-out their teaching, in their desperation to meet the constantly shifting demands of the government’s accountability system”. He warns that “low-level gaming is rife and teaching to the test endemic”.

Mr Astle – who was policy advisor to former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg – is now education director at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). His essay identifies three common trends in schools that result from the accountability system:

  • A narrowing of the curriculum, especially as pupils approach key stage 2 SATs and GCSEs, when schools “increasingly focus their time, energy and resources only on those subjects that will affect their league table position”.
  • Teaching-to-the-test – the practice whereby schools drill pupils in the tactics and techniques of exam-taking and focus their instruction on the specific demands of the test and the mark scheme. Mr Astle says that this not only turns young people off learning, but generates “superficial, temporary and illusory educational gains”.
  • Gaming – particularly the practices of manipulating the admissions and exclusions system to attract high-performing students and remove low-performing pupils and of “entering large numbers of pupils for easy-to-obtain qualifications of little interest or value to the learner”.

The essay is the result of Mr Astle’s search for schools bucking these trends – what he calls “mission-led” schools. Its findings and lessons are aimed at those school leaders who he says are neither “gamers” or “missionaries”, but just “hardworking pragmatists who try to do the best they can by their students in the circumstances”.

The essay states: “There are some school leaders who simply refuse to play this bureaucratic education-by-numbers game; leaders whose decisions are shaped, not by the government’s agenda, but by their own sense of mission – by the higher purpose to which they have dedicated themselves and their schools.
“I decided to go and meet some of these educational ‘missionaries’ to get a better understanding of what they are trying to achieve and how they are trying to achieve it.”

The essay’s publication marks the start of a new piece of work at the RSA aimed at engaging with the “overworked and disempowered” teaching profession in order to focus on the relationship “between the teacher, the pupil and the text” – what the RSA calls “the real substance of education”.

Drawing on the work of his “mission-led” schools, Mr Astle proposes a number of school and policy solutions.

These include withdrawing the power for schools to act as their own admissions authority and “making explicit Ofsted’s emerging role as the guardian of a broad and balanced curriculum”.

Mr Astle also wants to abolish the Ofsted “outstanding” category and see the inspectorate step back. He recommends: “Ofsted should play a role more akin to the ‘Food Standards Agency’ than ‘restaurant critic’, focusing solely on identifying serious underperformance.”

Better training and CPD for teachers in the use and misuse of assessment and how “teaching-to-the-test impedes, rather than supports, learning”, is also a key recommendation.

Mr Astle said: “Having worked at the centre of government, I know that the architects of England’s school accountability system are motivated by the best of intentions: to expose serious under-performance and raise standards.

“But as the grip of that system has tightened over the last 25 years, and the catalogue of unintended consequences and perverse incentives has grown ever longer, it is hard not to conclude that the costs now outweigh the benefits. We have reached that critical point where positive change becomes possible – where the risks of inaction are higher than the risks of reform.

“The RSA calls on everyone who recognises the importance of assessment and accountability, but who shares our concerns that the system as currently designed is damaging children’s education, to join the debate about how to reform that system for the better.”

Peter Hyman, co-founder and executive headteacher at School 21 in east London – one of those identified in the essay as bucking the trends, added: “This report outlines with vivid clarity the pressures on schools to meet the accountability framework of Ofsted and exam results. It shows that it is difficult but possible to drive through a more expansive vision of education that meets the needs of these complex times. And it makes the case compellingly for a reform agenda that allows a more rounded view of education – the development of head, heart and hand.”


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