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Is the government finally moving away from data as the only way to judge school performance?

Ministers’ over-dependence on annual test results has taken its toll on a generation of heads – and those put off headship because of it – but there are refreshing signs that this could be changing

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Ministers’ over-dependence on annual test results has taken its toll on a generation of heads – and those put off headship because of it – but there are refreshing signs that this could be changing

Within Justine Greening’s recent announcement on assessment there was a very interesting line that has gone somewhat under the radar:


"Because of the changes to primary assessment, I want to be clear that no decisions on intervention will be made on the basis of the 2016 data alone. Regional schools commissioners and local authorities will work together with the current leaders of the small minority of primary schools below the floor or coasting to help and support the schools to move forward in a positive direction.”


The fact that intervention cannot be based on 2016 data alone is a welcome and tacit admission that the results from last year cannot be relied upon to give an accurate picture of school performance. Whilst this will come as no surprise to those working in our primary schools, it is positive to see it being acknowledged by the government. However, the really interesting phrase is: ‘will work together with the current leaders’. If the education secretary’s words are to be taken at face value, this might just be the first steps towards a significant and welcome shift from a policy of heavy-handed intervention to one of genuine support for schools that are struggling.

Under the previous two secretaries of state for education, we witnessed repeated references to making it easier to sack headteachers. This situation had been exacerbated by the arrival of Regional Schools Commissioners (RSC). For many school leaders, there was a real fear that a letter from the local RSC was a signal to start packing your bags as it was the first step in a journey towards forced academisation and a change in leadership.

This whole climate had incredibly negative consequences. What both education secretaries failed to understand is that this sort of approach has implications far beyond the small group of leaders that they deem not up to scratch. It has created a culture of fear where even highly performing school leaders start to feel the need to look over their shoulder. It’s the ‘you’re only as good as your last set of results’ mentality. Such a culture is not one in which truly great leaders can thrive, nor therefore is it one in which pupils can thrive. Critically, it has also been a key factor in putting off many from even considering applying in the first place and is a major factor in school leader recruitment crisis we now face. The cost is not just in the leaders who have left the profession but in the unknowable number who have decided it is safer not to step up. Many deputies look at the difference in salary between their current role and that of a headteacher and decide the personal risks associated with high stakes accountability are simply not worth the reward. 

If Justine’s Greening’s announcement represents a genuine and long-term change in approach, then it is a very welcome and important one but given the experiences of the last decade, it may take some time for this to fully sink in. It helps therefore that the national school commissioner, David Carter, is also working hard to reinforce the more positive message.

So what would the secretary of state need to do in order to persuade school leaders that things will genuinely be different? Firstly there needs to be a clear message from government that, when holding schools to account, data is only ever the starting point that leads to more in depth conversations with school leaders. Warning notices and heavy-handed threats need to stop and they should be replaced with a genuine two-way dialogue about the kind of tailored support that a school would benefit from, including partnership working with other local schools where appropriate.

A world where concerns around a school’s data leads to a constructive and supportive conversation about planning for improvement would feel very different to the one which we currently inhabit where the conversation tends to centre on dramatic structural changes.

Justine Greening could also send a strong message to the profession by scrapping the data driven floor and coasting standards. Given the changes to the methods of assessment these are now relatively arbitrary benchmarks that add an additional layer of unnecessary accountability. We already have a rigorous inspection framework – why on earth do we need competing, cruder standards too? Surely an Ofsted inspector is able to identify a school that is not performing to its potential without the need for yet another statistical trap for schools to avoid. Under-performance should be identified as part of a rounded, expert judgement rather than a data trigger.

Schools who do underperform should be expected to demonstrate improvement but, in the vast majority of cases, the leaders of those schools should be able to expect a sustained period of support that they themselves have been involved in planning. Regional schools commissioners and local authority advisors have a key role to play here. It has to be said that all the time that RSCs have Key Performance Indicators linked to the number of schools becoming academies, school leaders will be understandably sceptical of their involvement. This needs to change so that their success is measured by the quality of the schools in their region and not about school structures.  Now that the white paper has been scrapped, it is time to further develop the role of RSCs into a fully constructive force.

There are some promising signs that the new secretary of state wants to take a different approach with schools. We will now be watching carefully to see just how far she is prepared to go to turn this more positive rhetoric into reality on the ground.

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

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