How accountability must change

Written by: Deborah Lawson | Published:
Deborah Lawson, general secretary, Voice

What is accountability for, who is accountable and when will schools be able to welcome inspectors as informed, objective, supportive and empowering colleagues? Deborah Lawson asks the questions

For this new year, term and Parliament, we have produced some resolutions for ministers.

Top is fair and sufficient funding for all phases of education – key to addressing the major barriers in education. Next is workload – and the need to address all its drivers – plus a strategy to enable education professionals to achieve wellbeing through work/life balance.

Successive governments have repeatedly missed initial teacher training targets, and an effective recruitment and retention strategy is essential as pupil numbers grow.

We want the government to recognise and value teaching assistants and commit to professional standards and a national pay and conditions structure for them.

And no list of resolutions would be complete without a commitment to “a school accountability system that has a clear purpose and promotes teacher agency” because, as the Committee of Public Accounts put it (2018), the Department for Education (DfE) needs to be clearer about “the purpose of inspection”.

What is inspection for? Ofsted’s Education Inspection Framework – with its shift in emphasis from data and results to the curriculum and the quality of education – is a step in the right direction, but has met with a mixed reaction, with uncertainty about how “quality of education” and “cultural capital” can be inspected. Concerns were raised that transition arrangements are not being consistently applied by inspectors – leading to more workload for teachers and leaders.

It is vital that inspectors are trained and experienced in the phase and subject they are inspecting so there is an accountable use of public money.

In November, during the election campaign, education secretary Gavin Williamson said that “Ofsted is an independent and trusted source of information for parents and teachers and their inspections help to raise standards in our schools”.

That statement raised a few eyebrows, not least because of previous warnings from the National Audit Office that “Ofsted does not know whether its school inspections are having the intended impact: to raise the standards of education” (NAO, 2018).

As we know, the school accountability system has been a major cause of workload and negative work/life balance, and is a significant barrier to teacher retention.

Ofsted has been demonised and politicised; its demands, aims and very purpose mythologised, misunderstood, manipulated or misinterpreted by politicians, the media, parents, heads, teachers – even by some of its own inspectors – and some of the criticism is valid.

The recent leak of documents used to train inspectors has raised questions about their confidence in their inspection areas because of the new system and a lack of subject knowledge (Allen-Kinross, 2019).

Voice has long called for inspections that are supportive and positive, rather than punitive and negative. We believe an inspectorate should be about enabling, not penalising, professionals.

In a letter to chief inspector Amanda Spielman (Voice, 2019), we draw comparison with Scotland: “Voice members, who report a great level of respect for HMIs and have confidence in their opinions, have long held the view that rigorous accountability can be achieved through a supportive, rather than punitive, process similar to that experienced by Voice members in Scotland. It has been said that the attitude of HMI is distinct to that of Ofsted inspectors and suggests advantage, and confidence, within the teaching profession could be gained by reviewing the Ofsted model, perhaps to reflect the positive aspects of the HMIE model.”

If teachers are to be given professional agency in the classroom and standards are to be maintained and improved, our resolution for government is for teachers and heads – instead of dreading the arrival of government spies and enforcers with clipboards – to be able to welcome informed, objective, supportive and empowering colleagues.

  • Deborah Lawson is general secretary of Voice.

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