Social justice and schools: Accountability

Written by: Dave Anderson | Published:
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In a seven-part series, teacher and school leader Dave Anderson considers how schools can be a key driver for social justice and how we can make our education system more equitable. In the final part, he tackles our school accountability system and the dreaded ‘O’…

SecEd series: A school system that drives social justice

Ofsted. What emotions does the word stir within you? Fear, perhaps? Anger, nervousness, anxiety, a deep-seated hatred or maybe a quick burst of adrenaline?

In my 25 years of teaching I have seen and felt all of these emotions and I have watched as colleagues have been pushed into high states of stress and fatigue, in some cases leaving the profession altogether.

Accountability is needed to maintain high standards and to ensure value for money for the tax-payer. But can Ofsted actually claim to do that? The number of children in good or outstanding schools in England has risen from 66 to 85 per cent between 2010 and 2019 (Ofsted, 2019). That apparent improvement in standards may or may not be as a result of Ofsted inspection.

However, that does also mean that in spite of Ofsted, which was brought into existence in 1992, after 27 years, 15 per cent of our schools are still not considered to be “good”.

A report by Ofsted itself states that: “In some pockets of the country, two whole cohorts of children have gone through all their primary or all their secondary school life without ever attending a good school.”

At the end of August 2019, there were still an estimated 210,000 pupils being educated in these so-called “stuck schools” (Ofsted, 2010).

Meanwhile, in schools, which of us has not found ourselves questioning at one point or another whether “we are just doing this for Ofsted” – and then fighting to justify our actions for educational reasons?

With a core purpose of improving outcomes for all students at all levels, schools should find that meeting Ofsted criteria is a natural by-product of their efforts, but this does not always seem to be the case.

Schools in Ofsted categories are in a permanent state of “high-alert”, where the stakes literally could not be any higher – student rolls and therefore financial security, parental support, leadership and governance are all on the line.

So why do I claim that Ofsted is part of the picture of inequity in our education system?

Why Ofsted doesn’t work

I strongly feel that the grading system and public nature of Ofsted reports work against the most disadvantaged students. As I highlighted in article six on assessment, schools with a higher proportion of disadvantaged students are likely to perform less well on Progress 8 and subsequently tend to be graded lower by Ofsted.

This leads to these schools being placed further down performance tables. This results in the schools being less desirable to prospective parents and concentrates the disadvantage further. Additionally, the league tables make it harder for less desirable schools to attract quality staff.

Stephen Gorard, professor of education and public policy at Durham University, is highly critical of Ofsted gradings, particularly in relation to selective schools: “Schools rated outstanding are more likely to be single sex, especially girls-only schools. They are staggeringly more likely to be selective than comprehensive and much less likely to be the majority secondary modern schools left over after selection to grammar schools.”

He adds: “It seems that Ofsted inspectors overall are unable to judge the quality of a school divorced from the kinds of challenges it faces. That is why schools deemed to be ‘failing’ are more likely to be in urban centres, and so-called ‘good’ schools are more often in leafy, suburban settings.” (Gorard, 2018)

The same 2020 paper by Ofsted cited earlier identifies that one of the reasons for schools becoming “stuck” is that “leaders perceived that the quality of the advice (they receive) is often lacking. There is a poor match between the problems of the school and the advice on offer”.

What school leaders appear to require in such situations is quality, contextualised advice and support from the right people. Ofsted is not in a position to offer such advice.

North of the border

Scotland’s approach is perhaps a step in the right direction. Inspections are carried out by Education Scotland. Like in England there is no grading of lessons, but by contrast there are no overall gradings for schools – although two core “Quality Indicators” are given an evaluation on a six-point scale.

Outside of a few core areas, schools can choose which areas they would like the inspection team to focus on, and there is a professional dialogue before and after the visit with a focus on partnership with the school.

According to Gayle Gorman, chief inspector of schools in Scotland, while the school’s report is published and does get picked up by the local press, they tend to publish the school’s successes, in stark contrast to what often happens south of the border (for more on this see ASCL’s November 2019 leadership podcast).

LIP service?

So, what might I propose for England instead? I suggest a model similar to that used by some provinces in Canada, where all schools have a Local Improvement Partner, a carefully selected former headteacher who collaborates with a group of local schools to advise, challenge, share expertise and hold to account.

The advantages of such a system in England would be that the “LIP” would have credibility, since they would be selected for a proven track record of high-quality headship and could facilitate sharing of good practice and genuine collaboration between schools in the area.

If all the schools were genuinely comprehensive and there were no public league tables, there would be no competition between schools in an area, only collaboration. The LIP could help facilitate moving of staff between schools to fill gaps in expertise and balance the provision to the benefit of all the students in the area.

The LIP would be accountable for the performance of all schools in the area to a higher authority, and therefore would work collaboratively to ensure equity across all the schools.

There are disadvantages, including the need for careful moderation of standards between LIPs and, of course, all schools would need to be truly comprehensive in intake to ensure equity under this system.

After seven articles: A conclusion

So, on our journey through the seven articles I have written this year for SecEd, we have seen how all these issues – collaboration, competition, resources/funding, education policy, admissions, assessment and accountability – are interlinked and serve to maintain the segregated and stratified system we currently have.

The main barriers to equity

  • A massive variation in the quality of English schools – from the most exclusive independent schools to the Ofsted “stuck” schools delivering an inadequate education to successive children over many years.
  • A competition-driven market place, with schools competing for pupils and staff to the detriment of other local schools.
  • A colossal gap in funding and resources between different types of school – as much as a five-fold difference between the spend per-pupil in the most exclusive independent school and a local comprehensive.
  • Education policy treated as a political football, driven by decisions made by people who largely have not experienced comprehensive state education in England, but who were educated in a parallel, segregated system – either at a selective or an independent school.
  • An admissions system which is set up to allow parents with the most resources to obtain places in “superior” schools to the detriment of others.
  • A high-stakes accountability assessment regime that ensures schools continue to compete publicly with one another. League tables largely mirror the level of disadvantage in the school rather than providing any genuine measure of teaching quality.
  • A failed accountability system – Ofsted actually compounds differences between schools by adding to the league table culture.

The solutions

If I could draw up my own blueprint to improve equity in our education system, what would it look like? I offer seven principles.

  • For all children to have their local school be a good school and for everyone in the community to attend the same school.
  • There would be no competition between schools – only co-operation and collaboration. Since there would be no market for schools and no competition, parental choice would be a thing of the past as all local schools would be good schools.
  • School resources, both human and material, would be broadly similar in all schools. However, enhanced resources would be put into more disadvantaged areas.
  • Policy decisions about education would be carefully considered, and largely made by people with a deep understanding of, and a background in, education. Educational policy would sit mainly outside political influence.
  • School admissions would be co-ordinated at a local level to ensure that schools have a broadly similar intake and represent the communities they serve. All schools would be comprehensive in their intake with no selection by ability to pay, faith, or academic ability.
  • Assessment up to the age of at least 16 would be low-stakes and formative. Standardised, high-stakes testing would only be used at age 18 for appropriate pathways. Standards would be monitored by samples at different age groups.
  • All schools would have a local improvement partner – a carefully selected former head who collaborates with a group of local schools to advise, challenge, share expertise and hold to account. There would be no high-stakes accountability systems such as publicised inspection report grades or league tables ranking schools.

A pipe-dream?

Such an equitable system for our schools in England seems as far away now as it has ever been, but this is a time of unprecedented change and such systems do exist around the world.

The levels of disparity between the winners and the losers in our education system are under the spotlight like never before. Is the pandemic giving us the opportunity for a fresh outlook on how we want our society to view education, and do we, as a profession, have the courage and conviction to create something better?

  • David Anderson is deputy principal at Uppingham Community College in Rutland.

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