March 2013

The know zone

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A golden opportunity?

Of all the issues facing schools and colleges, accountability continues to be the thorniest and least understood by government, says Brian Lightman.

This edition of Leader coincides with ASCL’s biggest ever annual conference. With more than 1,000 delegates and a programme of keynotes and breakout sessions covering the whole gamut of educational policy, the president’s theme of positive leadership provides an almost unique opportunity to learn from one another and influence the further development of our education service.

Among all of the topics we will discuss, the most challenging one remains accountability. It is absolutely right that schools and
colleges are held to account but it must be done in a way
that encourages them to do what is best for all of the
young people in their care. Looking back over ASCL and
Secondary Heads Association (SHA) policy documents on
this topic, we have been arguing the case for this kind of intelligent accountability for ten years or more.

Back in 2003, we quoted Ernest Boyer, former US commissioner of education, who said, “Over-accountability is the enemy of creativity and
risk-taking.” At that time we called on the government to “review the accountability of schools and examine ways in which a slimmer accountability regime could better support schools in raising achievement and fulfilling their wider aims”.

A decade later our call continues. Accountability, in the form of league tables, floor targets and Ofsted measures, is driving behaviour to an
even greater extent, despite its damaging effects having been recognised by a vast range of players including the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Ofqual and the government itself. In its 2010 Schools White Paper The Importance of Teaching the coalition government said:

“We believe that public services will improve most when professionals feel free to do what they believe is right, and are properly accountable for the results. Schools should evidently be accountable for achieving a minimum level of performance because taxpayers have a right to expect that their money will be used effectively to educate pupils and equip them to take their place in society. But in recent years, schools have suffered from a compliance regime which drove them to meet a bewildering array of centrally-imposed government targets. Schools should, instead, be accountable to parents, pupils and communities for how well they perform.

Frustratingly slow progress

At a time when a spotlight has been shone on successful practice in other countries, it is striking to read this statement by Pasi Sahlberg from the Finland Department of Education in his book Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland: “Interestingly, the term accountability cannot be found in Finnish educational policy discourse.” The contrast here in the United Kingdom
could not be starker. In spite of the knowledge that there is a real problem here, progress in addressing it is incredibly and frustratingly slow.

ASCL has always recognised the valid place accountability has to play in our education service. Parents and young people have a right to have
access to the most effective education provision and taxpayers have a right to know that their money is being used cost-effectively.

At the time of writing, the DfE has just published a long-awaited consultation document on accountability. ASCL has repeatedly said that this set of proposals must be considered alongside curriculum, qualifications and assessment in order to prevent a new set of perverse
incentives from arising. The consultation could therefore provide an eagerly awaited opportunity to allow schools and colleges to focus on what really matters, rather than the next performance indicator.

If such a Holy Grail is to be found let us be under no illusion about the difficulty of this task. If there were simple answers, they would have been found long ago. In taking this forward, the following issues will have to be considered, and some holy cows sacrificed in the process.

Accountability must be about far more than data. We have a responsibility to embed in every public institution a culture of openness and transparency that makes explicit w what we are setting out to do, the progress we are making and the areas we are still striving to develop.

The government and its agencies, including Ofsted, must foster rather than stifle such a culture. This is about far more than publishing performance information by itself. It is about constructive dialogue with anyone who has a stake in what we are doing.

We should be exploding the myth that parental engagement is simply about poring over performance tables and choosing the school that tops a particular league. The questions that any prospective parent needs to ask are far more subtle.

They are about what that school will do to meet the needs of their child, how that child will be supported and encouraged, what the school will do to ensure the safety and well-being of all of its students and above all what steps the school is taking to ensure that it recruits, retains and develops the highest quality of teachers and leaders at all levels. Once their child is admitted to the school those parents need to remain involved in working with their children and the school to ensure that these objectives are transferred into practice.

We need to get away from the low trust culture that uses accountability as a lever to drive practice by placing sanctions on schools and colleges. For example, current government thinking suggests that effective careers advice will be driven by the new destination measure. This cannot possibly happen for several reasons.

First, destination data can never be more than a snapshot, unless the pathway a student takes is tracked over a period of many years. In addition to destinations, completion rates and employment patterns need to be considered.

Second, the emerging indicators need to take into account the full range of valid routes a school or college leaver might take. University is one of those but there are many current and emerging employment-based routes as well and we would surely not want to discourage gap years. This is not to say that destination data does not have a purpose – it is useful in evaluating curriculum provision and planning for the future, for instance.

Rigorous, constructive criticism

This sums up a problem that is at the heart of the accountability debate. Self-evaluation is enormously important. Rather than being a soft option, it challenges schools and colleges to see their weaknesses as well as their strengths. It absolutely needs to be conducted in a spirit of rigorous, constructive criticism founded on a willingness to recognise what we are not yet doing well enough and identify strategies to address them.

And so, in that context, I cannot end an article on accountability without pausing on Ofsted.

Ofsted cannot and should not be expected to make evidence-based judgements on every single aspect of a school’s practice. What it can and should be doing is looking carefully at the evidence – a combination of data, first-hand observation and the schools’ and colleges’ self-evaluation findings – and coming to a judgement about the impact of all of those factors on standards of achievement and on the quality of education.

It is becoming increasingly evident that this is not always happening. Instead, too many schools and colleges are living in fear of an inspection regime that applies a deficit model, stifling the very openness that characterises the best leadership. In such a situation, the priority becomes to survive the process. The outcome is that practice in schools and colleges is driven by the accountability method rather than the best interests of the students.

We are on the cusp of an opportunity. A productive debate around the accountability consultation could have an enormously liberating impact on our education service. A narrow debate creating a new set of indicators to replace the current ones will set us up to stand still for the next ten years.

  • Brian Lightman is ASCL general secretary