School Accountability – Beyond League Tables

Suddenly the impact on schools and pupils of a simple data driven approach to school accountability has become a live issue.

Here is the Education Select Committee in its report on the administration of examinations:

“The Government should not underestimate the extent to which the accountability system incentivises schools to act in certain ways with regard to exams. Sometimes these may be in students’ interests; sometimes, however, they are not. We recommend that the Government look afresh at current accountability measures, with a view to reducing the dominant influence of the measure of 5 GCSE A*-C or equivalent including English and mathematics and to increasing the credit given to schools for the progress made by all children across the ability range.”

Here too is Ofqual on the impact of the current accountability regime:

“While no school that we interviewed considered that it was doing anything untoward in teaching and administering these GCSEs, many expressed concerns that other nearby schools were overstepping the boundaries of acceptable practice. It is clearly hard for teachers to maintain their own integrity when they believe that there is a widespread loss of integrity elsewhere. No teacher should be forced to choose between their principles on the one hand and their students, school and career on the other.”

 And here is the Singapore Minister for Education:

“The Ministry is taking steps to broaden the definition of success, and to emphasise holistic education, with character and values at the centre. Ranking schools based on the number of pupils with high PSLE scores will undermine these efforts, with potentially adverse impacts on our schools and our students. In fact, a good school is not measured by the number of top students that it produces at national examinations. Instead, a good primary school understands the profile and needs of its students, develops them holistically, in academic as well as non-academic areas, and prepares them well for secondary education”.

No one can really imagine that we can go back to the time when no one knew anything about how schools were doing. We expect organisations of all kinds to be open about their performance to the people who use their services. The days of provider dominance shutting out the public are long gone.

But nor can we ignore the damage being done by present systems. Starting in primary school we see the narrowing of education as teaching to the test dominates classrooms. Secondary schools are now driven by a remorseless cycle of assessment and intervention which is entirely about meeting exam requirements.  In the Singapore minister’s words “holistic education, with character and values at the centre” is being steadily driven out of our schools.

Heads and teachers live increasingly in fear of a crude “name and shame” culture with many feeling that their jobs are on the line every year. The pressure to use every trick in the book is massive and it is telling that Ofqual, for all the undoubted faults in its own work, has been brave enough to identify this issue.

There are two issues that need to be addressed. The first is to try to find approaches to accountability which take account of everything that we want schools to be doing. At a simple level focussing on a measure like average points rather than a threshold like 5 A to C would help in shifting the focus to all pupils rather than just those on the C/D border.

But any raw data will be inherently unfair. We know that poverty matters. We know that children from deprived backgrounds start school behind others and changing that is hugely difficult. We need to pay attention to how well schools close the attainment gap. But this is not simple either. Crude measures like free meal entitlement are not an adequate discriminator on which to base judgements about school effectiveness.

Nor will conventional data tell us anything about “character and values”. There can be some proxy indicators like attendance and success in employment or college but there is really no substitute for being in a school, exposing yourself to its ethos and getting to really know its pupils. There was a time when inspections at least tried to do this but since they have been reduced to cheap data driven box ticking they can’t begin to do it.

We need to accept that one number cannot sum up any institution. Different measures would be of some help but they need to be supplemented by a picture of the institution in words prepared by people who have taken the time to really get to know a school.

The second issue is to try to make accountability a less high stakes issue. That doesn’t mean that pupil performance doesn’t matter. It does mean creating a regime where it’s ok to be honest about successes and failures. The rhetoric of failure and punishment has dominated the debate for too long and has actively got in the way of both real quality education and honesty about performance.

No doubt some schools will not be doing as well as they should and action will be needed. But you can do this in a collaborative way, even when personnel changes are indeed needed.  But what we have now is more about apportioning blame and applying simplistic quick fixes – and, as every good teacher knows, this isn’t how you get the best out of anyone.

Creating a new system won’t be easy. It’s more than just thinking up some new statistics and putting different things in the press release. Weaning the media off simplistic league tables will be very difficult. But it’s something that good local authorities were increasingly doing 10 years ago, based on a close knowledge of their schools and the issues facing them.

Or if learning from local authorities is now hopelessly politically incorrect, let’s remember  – as we’re always told – if it’s good enough for Singapore, perhaps it’s good enough for us!

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One Comment on “School Accountability – Beyond League Tables”

  1. Morehead says:

    Dear John,

    You mirror what has been my approach to education by using alternative assessments based on the old Mode 3. If you would like more information I will send it to you.

    keep up the good work.

    Best wishes Bill