Getting school accountability right

Written by: Nick Brook | Published:
Nick Brook, deputy general secretary, National Association of Head Teachers

Many agree that school accountability in England is not fit-for-purpose. The NAHT’s Accountability Commission has put forward a way to fix the system. Nick Brook explains

The NAHT, alongside others in the sector, have long been vocal in our concern about the negative impact of accountability. We have also been determined not simply to point at the problem but come up with practical solutions.

That is why, late in 2017, we started a series of conversations with leading educationalists and academics. Everyone we talked to, at every level of the system, accepted that the way in which schools were being held to account was not working as well as intended and needed to change. From this desire for something better, our Accountability Commission was formed. Our aim was to make a constructive contribution, to set a way forward, based in evidence, and to start a debate that is urgently needed.

Children only get one chance at an education. It is right that systems are in place to identify schools that are failing and take action where problems occur. Quite frankly, the stakes are too high not to.

If we get it right, accountability can be a force for good, it can challenge underperformance and act as a catalyst for improvement.

Within this, Ofsted has played, and should continue to play, an important role in helping to ensure that all schools are good schools.

But at the moment, we’re getting it wrong. We repeatedly heard that the current accountability arrangements in England are not working as well as they should. Perverse incentives, the unequal treatment of schools in different circumstances or the negative impact on teacher workload all mean that too often the current arrangements cause harm rather than drive improvement.

Ofsted’s short inspection model offers little tangible benefit to good schools and their governing bodies. Equally, the well-intentioned outstanding grade, and the associated exemption from inspection, has not had the impact intended on system improvement.

Accountability systems should always be tested against their purpose to improve standards. We want an education system that values academic achievement, personal excellence and the emotional and mental wellbeing of every child.

So, how can we reform school accountability to ensure that it helps, rather than hinders, the development of excellent provision?

Among those giving evidence were the National Foundation for Educational Research (which conducted an international evidence review specifically for this project), the UCL Institute of Education, the Education Policy Institute, Ambition School Leadership, the Educational Development Trust, and Teach First.

Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of schools, the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, and policy heads from the Department for Education also contributed.
In March the commission met for the first time. Our starting point was to establish a set of eight guiding principles for an effective accountability system – to act as tests to inform recommendations:

  1. Help not hinder the provision of excellent education for all, or in other words, accountability systems should be tested against their ability to improve standards.
  2. Be fair to all schools, irrespective of circumstance or context. It cannot be right that teachers and leaders are put-off working in schools in challenging areas because they simply do not believe that the inspection system will treat them fairly.
  3. Accept the inherent limitations of data. Pupil performance data might inform, but should never dictate, professional judgement of school effectiveness.
  4. Identify signs of decline earlier. Far better surely to work with schools before they start to sink, rather than hauling them out when the damage has been done.
  5. Encourage school leaders to take responsibility for their own school improvement. The secret to a great school cannot be found in the pages of the Ofsted inspection handbook.
  6. Incentivise and value collective responsibility for pupil outcomes across schools. Current incentives and sanctions work against this, we need to make doing the right thing the easiest thing to do.
  7. Provide clear and accurate information to parents, balancing simplicity of message with being meaningful – we will gain little support for change if parents are left uncertain or confused about the quality of provision.
  8. Reduce workload, stress and anxiety associated with holding schools to account. It should not, directly or indirectly, drive activity that is more to do with being “inspection-ready” than improving the learning of pupils.

From these starting points, the commission agreed that we should judge all schools fairly on the impact they have, irrespective of circumstance or context. The commission believes that this means using data more intelligently.

The power and potential of inspection are dependent on high-calibre HMI using professional judgement to determine whether a school is doing all that might be reasonably expected of it, in the circumstances that it faces. Data should inform, but never dictate a judgement.

As a starting point to a discussion, inspectors would get a fairer indication of the quality of education provided through comparative performance data within “families” of schools. Far from enshrining low expectations. teachers, leaders and governors would be properly recognised for the work they do, wherever they happen to be, removing the disincentive to lead or work in schools in challenging areas.

We also need to be more realistic about what we expect of our inspectors. Ofsted’s resources are stretched and inspectors themselves report that inspecting schools in the very limited time they have is becoming an impossible task.

The commission proposes a new role for Ofsted, focused where we need them most: identifying failure and providing a stronger diagnostic insight to schools that are struggling.

Critically, a “requires improvement” judgement should be linked to funded support, underpinning the government’s welcome shift away from the sanctions-based approach implicit in “floor” and “coasting” standards.

Identifying schools that are struggling is one thing, making qualitative judgements of “how good” a good school is, is quite another. We concluded that the outstanding judgement should be replaced with a more robust system for identifying specific areas of excellence, anchored not in the accountability system but in school improvement.

Crucially, the commission believes that the profession itself must step forward. We recommend that the College of Teaching is invited to set out clearly the leadership behaviours that the profession itself values, recognising that the secret of a great school is not to be found within the Ofsted inspectors’ handbook.

Our report is intended to be a constructive contribution, to start a debate that is urgently needed. The reforms we outline can reduce and eradicate many of the negative impacts currently experienced. But the report goes further – it provides a compelling long-term vision for rebalancing top-down accountability with peer-to-peer improvement support. In doing so, we set out the first steps to be taken. This journey is likely to take some time, but we need to be clear about our ultimate destination and waste no time in starting towards it. 

  • Nick Brook is the deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

Further information

Improving School Accountability, Accountability Commission, NAHT, September 2018:


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