Policymakers must pass the accountability test

The latest Ofsted report acknowledges its role in creating a system that places too much emphasis on results. Now it’s time for a debate, says James Bowen
20th October 2017, 12:00am
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Policymakers must pass the accountability test


I cannot recall a single occasion when an inspector vising my school asked about the quality of our music or art provision. I wish they had. I would have loved to have talked about those areas of our curriculum, to have looked through children’s sketchbooks and discussed the progress children were making in a wide range of subjects. Similarly, it would have been wonderful to explore how our history and geography curriculums were helping children to gain a better understanding of the world in which they lived.

Prior to arriving at our school, the lead inspector had poured over all our published data (reading, writing and maths) and decided in advance on the “lines of enquiry” to pursue. Invariably, these were about issues such as gaps between boys’ and girls’ progress in writing, or questions about the “more able” in maths. I don’t recall there ever being much time spent investigating our pupil outcomes in design and technology or their progress in RE. Once the inspection commenced, the conversations would nearly always continue to focus on the subjects that were to be formally assessed at the end of each key stage.

I think this is why plenty of school leaders will have read last week’s curriculum report from Ofsted’s new-ish chief inspector Amanda Spielman with a sense of incredulity. Many will feel as though schools are being criticised for doing exactly what the accountability system has demanded of them for decades.

There are few of us who would disagree with the report’s overarching findings. We know that an over-emphasis on test and exam results has led to a narrowing of the curriculum in many schools. The irony of this is that it’s exactly what teachers and school leaders themselves have been saying for years.

However, to blame schools seems unfair. When you have an accountability system that places emphasis on test and exam outcomes in a narrow range of subjects, you can hardly blame schools for focusing their attention in these areas. No school narrows the curriculum out of choice, they do so because they feel they have no other option.

In fairness, Ofsted has accepted that they have played a role in creating this situation. But I think that the suggestion that they have sometimes “tipped the balance” in this area seriously underplays their role. For years schools have been through inspections where there was a strong sense that the test results would be a highly significant, if not determining, factor in deciding their fate.

In recent years Ofsted have made efforts to address this and inspectors are now clearly told not to put too much emphasis on historic data. This has been a positive move, but there is still a sense that too much significance is placed on test outcomes.

If Spielman’s report signals a change in emphasis from Ofsted, I think it’s a change most of us would welcome. It would also serve as further confirmation that the new chief inspector has understood some of the negative effects that high-stakes accountability can have on schools.

High-stakes system

We should be clear that the inspectorate alone cannot shoulder all the blame for this, nor can they be expected to solve it alone. They are one player in a broader high-stakes accountability system that needs rethinking. The government’s floor and coasting standards are based entirely on a school’s test or exam results. Schools who do well in these tests are lauded by ministers and their leaders are encouraged to extend their influence across the wider education system.

Then there are the consequences for a school that doesn’t achieve the government’s benchmark. We all know that school leaders have been “moved on” as a direct result of the school’s test outcomes, that governing bodies have been disbanded and that schools have been forced into joining academy chains. In this context, it is hardly surprising that schools do everything in their power to ensure their test scores are as high as possible.

If we want to reduce the amount of time schools spend preparing for tests and exams, the only option is to lower the stakes. This is not to say that the results of these tests don’t matter - of course they do. But test results will always be only part of the picture when it comes to judging school effectiveness.

It’s imperative that we come to value a broad range of subjects in the school day so that students’ opportunities are not limited either during their time at school or in later life.

A debate in this area is welcome and long overdue. If Spielman stimulates one, then it is to be welcomed. We need policymakers to work together to create a proportionate accountability system that values a broad and balanced curriculum.

James Bowen is director of middle leaders’ union NAHT Edge. He tweets @JamesJkbowen

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