Accountability: evolution or revolution?

At our recent event, Sean Harford, National Director for Education at Ofsted set out the proposed changes to future inspections, with an increased focus on curriculum as part of a single judgement on Quality of Education, encompassing previous judgements on Teaching, Learning and Assessment and Outcomes. He described this as ‘evolution, not revolution’, a journey towards a fuller and more balanced judgement of schools and their success.

Why does changing our accountability system matter? The key concerns here are teacher workload and teaching quality.

The Varkey Foundation survey found that British teachers are working the longest hours per week after New Zealand, Singapore and Chile. When the public were asked to estimate teachers’ weekly workload, they guessed 45.9 hours per week: the actual figure is 50.9, one whole school day more per week. There is however, a growing understanding of the challenges of being a teacher. In 2013, 26% of the general public said they would encourage their children to become teachers, and this is now down to 23%. We are losing teachers at the top, through early retirement or burnout, and at the bottom, since the number of those applying to become teachers is dropping. In London, we are also losing them in the middle, since they cannot afford to live in the city. Many of our schools lose teachers permanently because they move out of London altogether, or temporarily because they go to teach in an international school in order to save up for a deposit on a home in London.

Teacher vacancies since 2010: Teacher recruitment and retention in England, House of Commons Briefing, December 2018

The DfE have recognised the need to reduce teacher workload, and have so far focused on planning, marking, assessment and data collection. Their original promise to ‘move to a simpler system of accountability, where schools feel supported not restrained’ has to be one of the causal factors behind the changes to the Ofsted framework. Do these changes go far enough to rescue our broken system and are they really going to support the development of a quality teaching workforce?

Clearly the renewed focus on curriculum, instead of teaching to the test through a narrowed focus on English and maths in primary and early starts to GCSEs in secondary, should enable a better learning experience for pupils. And Ofsted’s own evidence has revealed that this may advantage schools teaching more deprived intakes: in their own pilot, more schools in the most deprived communities (69%) scored in the top three bands for their curriculum (3, 4 and 5) than those in the least deprived communities (62%).

But let’s also look at what Ofsted are NOT changing. The grading of schools will not change despite the educations system’s call for its removal since, in Sean’s own words, ‘neither parents nor politicians want it to’. One of our panellists Jan Shadick, Regional Director for United Learning raised this as a problematic issue: we know from research that, when you mark children’s work and grade it, they do not read the associated feedback. Those with lower grades give up and those with higher grades become complacent. We know that Ofsted believes it is inappropriate to grade individual lessons based on observations, and we know from our own experiences that this process can be as demotivating and problematic as giving pupils grades. Why then is it deemed appropriate to continue to grade schools?

Nick Brook, Deputy General Secretary of NAHT is among the many who have called for the Outstanding grade to be replaced. Our experience in Southwark confirms the NAHT’s findings: exemption from inspection is confusing and unhelpful to parents; new headteachers who have taken over ‘Outstanding’ schools report that the historical badge can create resistance to change among staff.

Sean also claimed that ‘Requires Improvement’ simply means that there are some improvements to be made and that there is capacity within the school to make these improvements. I asked headteachers from schools currently judged to be RI in Southwark what they thought about this comment after the event. They thought this comment was naïve and complacent: they have experienced the negative backlash from parents and the intense pressure on staff that an RI judgement can bring.

We all understand the need for schools to be held accountable, the need for schools who are not providing an education of sufficient quality to raise their game. But for those schools who are judged to be Good and Outstanding, the most effective form of accountability is horizontal not vertical – ‘schools explaining and justifying their idea of ‘quality’ and the means to achieve it to those directly involved’ (Visser, 2015: 21). This is the most powerful form of accountability – collective accountability – and Matt Davis from the Education Development Trust advocated achieving this through accredited systems of peer review. We run a highly successful programme of Peer Review here in Southwark, and that’s exactly what it does: it holds schools to account, whilst driving school improvement without the need for judgements and labels. The focus is on exploring evidence, raising questions and driving action which will make a difference.

The punitive nature of our current accountability system is the key trigger for teacher workload and problems with recruitment and retention. Top down accountability causes:

‘Increased emotional pressures and stress…; increased pace and intensification of work; and changed social relationships… increased, sometimes intentional competition between teachers and departments… concomitant decline in the sociability of school life… an increase in paperwork, systems maintenance and report production and the use of these to generate performative and comparative information systems; an increase in surveillance of teachers’ work and outputs; a developing gap in values, purpose and perspective, between senior staff, with their primary concern for balancing the budget, recruitment, public relations and impression management, and reaching staff, whose primary concern is with curriculum coverage, classroom control, students’ needs and record keeping’ (Kneyber, 2015: 41)

So, as Nick Hunt said, ‘what we really want from Ofsted is revolution, not evolution’. Get rid of unhelpful grade labels and help us to hold each other to account: this is what will really motivate teachers and make the profession both appealing and enduring.

You can read more about newer and better forms of accountability in Flip the System by Jelmer Evers and Rene Kneyber.