Accountability: Let’s stop this madness and incentivise the right things

Written by: Mick Waters & Tim Brighouse | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Our heads face the fiercest accountability system with the direst consequences of any. We cannot continue like this. Sir Tm Brighouse and Professor Mick Waters set out their case for a radical overhaul of school inspection and examination

What do 14 secretaries of state all agree about? It was a question which fascinated us as we collected evidence for our book About Our Schools: Improving on previous best (2022).

Of course, party allegiance explains some of their differences but surely what they agreed about must be the right way forward?

Controversially however, what united politicians was a belief in the necessity for Ofsted and the regular inspection and labelling of individual schools much as we have it at present as a vital part of school accountability.

Most of our teacher and headteacher witnesses disagreed, especially with the four school Ofsted categories, claiming that it was far too “high-stakes” in its outcomes and that it didn’t do any favours to schools in challenging circumstances.

In consequence, the best teachers including school leaders were often wary of taking jobs in such schools, thereby tipping the school into a vicious downward spiral.

Support for these doubts came from a surprising quarter. Former HMCI and head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw confessed: “There were a lot of complaints about the inconsistency of inspectors and deep down I knew they were right.

“Some … believed inspectors relied too heavily on data to make their judgements, the problem with moving away from data – as the current framework has probably done – is that you are then heavily reliant on the personal judgement of inspectors who may lack the experience or wisdom to come to the right conclusions.”

About Our Schools: Also from Mick Waters & Tim Brighouse in this series:

Christine Gilbert, his predecessor, went further and more broadly when she said: “The public accountability has too strong a hold on the system. It is holding too many schools back. It needs to change so schools and children can really thrive.”

It is a view confirmed by Steve Munby, formerly director of the National College for School Leadership, who summed up the impact when he said: “Internationally our heads face the fiercest accountability system with the direst consequences of any. And the impact of that is felt throughout the school.”

So, the experts – in medical terms, our SAGE – disagree with the politicians.

As if that were not enough, the clincher for us – that the accountability system needed a total overhaul – was a politician, David Blunkett – former secretary of state – who, when asked if he had regrets, replied that he wished he had understood about norm-referencing and that the existing exam system was “shot”.

In other words, the whole league table palaver which parents have been encouraged to rely on along with what Sir Michael exposes as an all-too-fallible set of individual school inspection reports mean that school accountability at present resembles the Emperor’s moth-eaten clothes.

Where now for examinations?

What could a new and better system look like? Let’s start with exams and the teachers’ role in them. In the summer of 2020, Covid meant that exams were cancelled resulting in the chaos of Ofqual’s discredited algorithms for GCSE and A level.

When some teacher leaders claimed teachers didn’t know how to assess, we were surprised because one of the essential skills of a teacher is knowing where a pupil is in their learning so they can manage the next step.

What perhaps they meant was that, unlike in Scotland, where teacher-assessed coursework counts towards the final grade, the abandonment of coursework in England years earlier combined with the impenetrable nature of the exam board processes, had made teachers justifiably cautious about taking on the responsibility.

When, however, they did take on marking in 2021 there was less of a fuss than in any previous year even when exams were as we all had known them.

Put simply, what we need are Level 2 exams (GCSEs) nationally set, internally marked, regionally moderated and taken when pupils are ready followed by Level 3 further combinations of academic vocational and other assessments (including summative exams similarly nationally set, internally marked and regionally moderated) – in short an 18-plus Baccalaureate along the lines of the Tomlinson Report which most of our ministerial witnesses wished had been implemented when published rather than shelved as it was in the mid-2000s by an increasing timid Labour government.

Each school or partnership of schools would enhance their assessment expertise by two developments: first they would have on their staff a chartered assessor validated by the Chartered Institute of Assessors (CIEA), with lead assessors for each area of the curriculum – similar to developments in Northern Ireland, and second the school or partnership would hold an “assessment licence” which could be suspended if their results were found to be too far out of kilter when Ofsted inspected. Such a school or partnership would be put under the care of another partnership whose results were reliable until they could show they had recovered their skills in assessment and could resume their licence.

The exam system thus reformed would remove the need for the expensive presence of three main exam boards – AQA, OCA and Edexcel – which between them take millions in profits/surpluses from schools, which themselves devote multi-millions of scarce budgetary resources on exam entries.

Apart from their profit, all they do now is run a system based on normative referencing and shot through with a large “error factor” as the appeals prove each year.

Where now for inspection?

That brings us to the revised role of Ofsted in relation to the individual school or, ideally, “partnerships” of schools. We argue in our book that there is growing doubt and disillusion with the present age of Markets, Centralisation and Managerialism: the Department for Education and ministers have too much power and interfere too much; and the competitive basis of school accountability leads to what some have called the “forgotten third” of pupils who gain so little from their schooling.

We think we need to move to a new schooling age – one of hope, ambition and collaborative partnerships.

MATS, whether loosely or tightly run, are here to stay and the case for ensuring some local democratic presence on their trust boards is strong. But they need to be inspected too.

Ofsted should shift its focus from inspecting the individual school (except where there are free schools or standalone academies) and hold the MATs and other partnerships to account. Part of that process could and should be the inspection of one school selected by Ofsted and one nominated by the MAT, but the aim would be to see if the inspectors’ view of those schools matched that of the MAT.

Ofsted’s inspection verdict on the MAT would involve it being rated for how inclusive it was, how well it handled SEND, the efficacy of its school improvement function, its CPD arrangements, and what the local authority said through its scrutiny committee of its service to the community.

Reforming school accountability in this way would involve what the former chief inspector Christine Gilbert outlined for us as “the school report card” which would paint a holistic picture of the school – its many achievements and the work it does in all its activities to “improve on previous best” which should be the aim of everyone in education.


Whether it’s the school, or staff or every one of the pupils that will need to be partnerships of schools’ ambition in the years ahead – to improve on our previous best. (SENSE)

An equitable accountability system geared to that rather than dominated by failure would help and we have outlined how that can be achieved in the book.

  • A former headteacher, Professor Mick Waters has worked in teacher education and at policy levels in both local and national government. He was director of curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority from 2005 to 2009. Sir Tim Brighouse was twice a chief education officer – once in Oxfordshire and once in Birmingham – and led the London Challenge.

Further information

Brighouse & Waters: About Our Schools: Improving on previous best, Crown House Publishing, January 2022 (available now):


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