If we were looking for a single word to describe England’s school accountability system, I think we would have to say it is "bizarre".
Trying to describe to a visitor how we seek to measure the success of our schools and colleges gets us into labyrinthine explanations that run something like this:
“Well, there are performance tables, which rate schools on results in tests and exams. They do this in various ways but in primary schools, the rating revolves around how the children do in a week of tests after seven years at school, and in secondary schools on how much progress the children make between those tests and GCSEs compared with the average amount of progress made by all children.
“Schools with lots of disadvantaged pupils often do less well in these tables because – not surprisingly – disadvantaged children have challenges that affluent children don’t have.
“So really, such measures end up being a reflection of the demographic make-up of the area that the school is in. And obviously this puts many people off working in those schools because it is a bit like being hit repeatedly over the head with a club.
“Then there are school inspections, which judge schools against a very long list of things that changes every few years and then says all the 21,000 schools in England are either ‘outstanding’, ‘good’, ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’.
“Again, schools with lots of disadvantaged pupils are less likely to be judged as being ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ because of the challenges they face compared with schools that don’t have as many challenges, and their headteachers can lose their jobs. So, this can also put people off working in these schools, which means they sometimes get stuck in a cycle of being labelled as 'inadequate' from which they struggle to escape.
“But the government says this is all a good thing because it maintains standards and if we were to make allowances for schools in disadvantaged areas, then we would be guilty of something called the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Put like that, I think we can agree that we have an accountability system that is, at the very least, bizarre. Or, if you’re caught in the midst of it all, you may prefer to call it "perverse", "destructive" or simply "brutal". Take your pick.
Which leads me to the point of this week’s column. Because there is nothing new or original in the paragraphs above. We have railed for years about the manifest problems with school accountability. Yet it can sometimes feel as if we are no further forward.
This is not quite true, of course. The former education secretary Damian Hinds ditched the squalid concepts of "floor" and "coasting" standards. Further back, the introduction of Progress 8, imperfect though it may be, was an improvement on the old blunt measure of attainment in five or more GCSEs.
More recently, Ofsted has also sought to improve things with the introduction of a new framework which is less obsessively linked to a school’s data and looks more at curriculum quality. In our consultations with members of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), they told us that the principle of this – getting back to the substance of education – was the right direction of travel by the inspectorate.
And what we seem to be seeing during the first phase of implementation of the new inspection framework is some leaders welcoming the professional dialogue it can open up about the curriculum, with others concerned about inconsistencies between teams and the subjectivity involved in judging what an appropriate curriculum means in practice.
From all the messages in the general election campaign, this is not a government on a mission to agree to abandon the school inspection system, or stop publishing exam and test data. There’s too much at stake in terms of the education children and young people receive and the billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money that underpins it.
But, as I’ve argued before, the government should be persuaded that the current system needs reform, and that there are changes that could be made relatively quickly:
- Scrap Ofsted graded judgements and their associated descriptors – ie, "outstanding", "good", "requires improvement" and "inadequate" – and replace them with a narrative judgement. Schools are too complex to fit neatly into one of four categories. They may do some things well, and others less well. This is all that the judgement needs to say. This would allow more nuance, particularly with regard to recognising when schools are in challenging circumstances, and it would encourage parents to look beyond blunt gradings at the important subtleties of a school’s actual performance.
- Improve the complaints system over inspections. There is a feeling among schools that there is not a cat in hell’s chance of overturning an Ofsted judgement. Work with the sector to make the complaints process simpler, clearer and more effective.
- Stop the merry-go-round of forced academisation and rebrokering. A change of ownership might be what a school needs, but this is not necessarily always the case, particularly when there isn’t sufficient local capacity to take on a sponsored school. Look for tailored solutions that suit the circumstances and listen to the views of staff, parents and communities.
- Ensure that all inspectors are professional and courteous in their dealings with schools and colleges. While the majority no doubt are, we still hear too many stories of inspections which are an ordeal. There is a difference between providing an appropriate degree of professional challenge, and appearing to arrive at the school with an ideologically fixed mindset of what "good" looks like.
- Reform school performance tables so that they provide a wider range of information. They could still include statistics on tests and exams, but as part of a data dashboard that looks at other factors that are arguably of more importance to parents and which pertain to the wellbeing of pupils. For example, it could include information about the extent of extracurricular provision at the school.
- Stop measuring schools on the percentage of pupils who achieve a grade 5 in English and maths GCSE. It isn’t aspirational to set the bar at a grade 5 rather than the old grade 4/C. It is just demoralising given that the proportion of pupils who achieve a grade 5 is roughly the same at national level each year because of the system of "comparable outcomes". And on the subject of grading, stop describing a Grade 4 as a "standard pass" and a Grade 5 as a "strong pass". A pass is a pass.
- For goodness' sake, ditch the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) as a performance measure. It is narrow, rigid and pointless. The EBacc subjects form a substantial part of the Progress 8 measure in any case.
- Review the disproportionate impact that a very small number of pupils with unusually low results can have on Progress 8 scores.
- Consider basing the data in primary school performance tables on a three-year rolling period, rather than on results from a single year’s assessments.
- Mind your language. Ministers and regulators have to be more careful about not looking as though they are wagging their fingers at schools and colleges. The discourse should be one of collaboration, trust and support. To be fair, things have got better in this direction, but it can still feel like being on the receiving end of a lecture at times.
I’m not sure to what extent these suggestions would make the accountability system less bizarre. There may be an inherent weirdness about trying to judge all the schools in England, of all types, shapes and sizes, by a common set of criteria. It may be that any system will always have its flaws and problems.
But it does feel possible to make it fairer, more proportionate, more sensible, so that it works better for everybody – pupils, parents, communities, teachers and school leaders.
Getting our accountability system right, making it less bizarre, would then free our teachers and leaders to focus on the more important job: preparing the next generation of young people to take their place as good, ethical, well-educated citizens in a complex world.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton