April 2018


  • Lead the way
    At our Annual Conference, Geoff Barton urged the government and other agencies to reduce the bureaucratic burden on the education profession, but he said leaders should also step up and act now on workload. More
  • #WomenEd: A leading voice
    Frustrated at the lack of momentum gathered by initiatives to encourage women into leadership, #WomenEd decided to take action. Co-founder Keziah Featherstone explains why something had to change. More
  • Central vision
    How do multi-academy trusts (MATs) create a shared ethos and culture across their schools? GL Assessment's Chief Executive Greg Watson argues that the key is to think centrally but work collaboratively. More
  • Primary goals
    ASCL's newly published Primary Accountability Review makes 15 key recommendations to help ensure that primary schools are held to account for what matters most. Here ASCL Policy Director Julie McCulloch takes a look at the review's findings. More
  • School funding: The impact
    How have school funding levels changed, what effect is this having on spending and what is the relationship between funding and outcomes? Here, NFER Research Manager Maire Williams explores the latest research. More
  • Invaluable insights
    ASCL Annual Conference was a chance to take stock of what we do in our schools and colleges, and opened our eyes to fantastic learning and networking opportunities, says Headteacher Theo Nickson. More
Bookmark and Share

ASCL's newly published Primary Accountability Review makes 15 key recommendations to help ensure that primary schools are held to account for what matters most. Here ASCL Policy Director Julie McCulloch takes a look at the review’s findings.

Primary goals

Many of the negative effects of assessment are in fact caused by the use of results in the accountability system rather than the assessment system itself.”

So stated the Education Select Committee in its hard-hitting report on primary assessment last year. The way in which primary schools are currently held to account, according to the committee, leads to a raft of negative consequences, including a narrowing of the curriculum, excessive pressure on both children and teachers and incentives to ‘game’ the system.

ASCL was keen to explore this issue further. Last spring, we launched a review of how our primary schools are currently held to account, and how this may be improved. We brought together an expert panel to help us think through these questions, and published our final report in March entitled Sense and Accountability: Holding our primary schools to account for what matters most (www.ascl.org.uk/primaryaccountability).

What do we mean by ‘accountability’?

The review started from the definition of accountability in ASCL’s Blueprint for a Self-Improving School System:

“Accountability is the obligation of an individual and organisation to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner. The highest form of accountability is the individual’s professional accountability for the quality of his or her own work and to the people who the profession serves. In a self-improving system, we believe that teachers and school leaders are agents of their own accountability.”

The blueprint outlined the role of government as “defining a slim, smart and stable public accountability framework with a small number of ambitious goals”.

The seven principles

Our review explored what such a “slim, smart and stable” (and fair and effective) public accountability framework may look like in a primary context. It should, in our view:

  1. start from a shared understanding of what outcomes we, as a society, want for our children and young people
  2. be based around a set of measures that incentivise schools to deliver on these outcomes, seeking ways to recognise and reward aspects that are important but difficult to measure, as well as those that are more easily quantifiable
  3. drive positive behaviour
  4. be based on information that is as accurate as possible, and not try to read too much into a small, unrepresentative amount of data
  5. be fair to schools in different circumstances and contexts, while recognising the importance of enabling every child to reach their potential
  6. lead to fair, proportionate, transparent and constructive consequences for schools that fall short of its desired outcomes, aligned with the best current evidence of what is most likely to lead to improvements
  7. be relentlessly self-critical, regularly evaluating impact and modifying as necessary

Our proposals

We make 15 recommendations. Some are for government, some for Ofsted and some for school leaders and leadership organisations. Our key proposals include:

Schools should be held to account for a broader range of measures

Reading, writing and maths are crucial, but they are not the only things that matter at primary school. We should be clearer, as a nation, about what we think is most important for young children to know and be able to do, and find ways to recognise schools’ achievements in these areas. Ofsted plays an important role here, and should commit to commenting more frequently in its inspection reports on subjects other than English and maths.

The accuracy of the current accountability measures must be improved

While the current reading and maths tests are of relatively high quality, the way in which writing is judged, through teacher assessment, is seriously flawed. The government should either find more reliable ways of assessing writing or exclude it from the performance measures altogether.

We must promote ethical leadership and effective curriculum design

School leaders have a key role to play in ensuring that their school’s curriculum is not overly driven by performance in the SATs. They should be confident that their curriculum is informed by the best available evidence on how to enable children to succeed, both against the current performance measures and in the broader outcomes they value.

Performance measures should be used in a proportionate way

We must be careful not to place too much weight on insubstantial data. A third of our primary schools have year groups of 25 children or fewer. It’s patently ridiculous to suggest that the results of such a small number of children, in a small number of subjects, is an accurate representation of a school as a whole.

And yet the current system too often does exactly that. We propose a number of ways in which this could be improved, including basing the primary school performance tables on data from a three-year rolling period, rather than on results from a single year’s assessments.

We also question the wisdom, and humanity, of requiring schools to label children as having ‘met’ or ‘not met’ the expected standard at the end of their seven years of primary education. Instead, we argue, schools should be able just to tell parents their child’s scaled scores on the Key Stage 2 tests, alongside their teachers’ broader assessment of their attainment and achievements.

We must employ the most effective responses to under-performance

Schools that under-perform against the current measures often find themselves on a path towards compulsory academisation. But we, as yet, have no evidence to prove that this approach works to drive up results – and if so, how. We call on the government to investigate both the desired and the unintended consequences of this approach, and to urgently share lessons from multi-academy trusts (MATs) that have succeeded in improving underperforming schools, as well as from those that have not.

We should continue to build our collective understanding of how accountability works Accountability is a complex beast, and we are still learning about how the various factors involved work together. As philosopher Baroness Onora O’Neill put it, “Every time one performance indicator is shown to be inaccurate, or misleading, or likely to produce perverse results, some people claim that they can devise a better one that has no perverse effects. Experience suggests that they may well be as wrong as those who invented the last lot of indicators.” The government must commit to regularly monitoring both the positive and negative impact of the way in which they hold schools to account, and find ways to minimise unintended and undesirable consequences.

Implementing these proposals would, we believe, take us closer to the fair and effective accountability system we need, and that our pupils, parents, teachers and school leaders deserve. We will be working with the Department for Education (DfE) and others over the next few months to take these ideas forward.

CPD for you

What Makes Great Assessment in the Classroom? 24 April 2018 in Manchester

Find out more and book your place online at: www.ascl.org.uk/greatassessment

Julie McCulloch
ASCL Policy Director and Primary Specialist