'How can a school be judged "good" by Ofsted but "coasting" by the DfE, and face intervention from an RSC?'

Our accountability system is so incoherent that schools can easily lose track of who they are accountable to and for what, writes one teachers' leader

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Accountability is one of those terms that has become ubiquitous in the world of education.

While there has always been a degree of accountability in our school system, the target and league table culture that took hold in the 1990s took things to a whole new level, and there is no doubting that schools and all those who work in them are more accountable now than they ever have been.

As tempting as it might be, I am not about to suggest that there should be no form of accountability whatsoever.

Yes, all our lives would be much easier if there was no Ofsted, but deep down most of us know that it is not unreasonable that there are mechanisms in place to monitor and report on the quality of our schools.

With our schools being state-funded, it is hard to argue that there shouldn’t be some form of oversight and scrutiny in terms of how effectively that money is being used to provide children with a good standard of education. A complete lack of accountability would not be in the interests of those we teach, or indeed of the profession itself.

A sensible and proportionate level of accountability can actually be a force for good. Knowing that others are evaluating our work helps to keep us focused on driving improvement and, to a certain extent, keeps us on our toes.

In any organisation or system, clear lines of accountability can help to drive up performance, and we shouldn't shy away from that.

The problem is that when it comes to schools, these lines are now anything but clear.

A confused and incoherent accountability system has emerged in recent years that many within the world of education are struggling to make sense of, let alone those looking in from the outside.

Confusion reigns

In this world it is easy for schools and school leaders to lose track of who they are accountable to and for what.

For most, the regular visit from the big "O" remains the most tangible and serious form of external accountability. However we also now have a team of regional schools commissioners whose job it is to monitor and "intervene" where they deem schools to be underperforming.

In addition, we have floor and coasting standards that are set centrally by the Department for Education (DfE).

Perhaps the most obvious example of how confused this has all become is that it is quite possible for a school to be judged as "good" by Ofsted but "coasting" by the DfE and to face intervention from an RSC.

What on earth are schools to make of that, let alone parents?

When accountability becomes this confused and overbearing the benefits described above are in danger of being lost. Worse than this, it can actually become a distraction.

I have heard this new world of multi-layer accountability being described as "embryonic" or "evolving". Whilst at a system level this makes sense, for those working in schools, it doesn't.

If our current system is in its infancy, we need it to quickly work out what it wants to be when it grows up.

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

For more columns by James, visit his back catalogue

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