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Long read: ‘Heads have had enough of accountability making things worse’

As school leaders call for teachers, not targets, to be the driving force for improvement, is this a turning point?

heads have had enough of accountability making things worse

As school leaders call for teachers, not targets, to be the driving force for improvement, is this a turning point?

“This could be a watershed moment for the teaching profession to have its voice heard.”

So says Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the NAHT, who has led the work of a new heavyweight commission into England’s school-accountability system. And the headteachers' union hopes the report, published today, has come at the right time to make a difference.

The conclusion of the commission is that the current system is doing more harm than good. The checks and balances that are supposed to ensure the public is getting a good standard of education are in fact making things worse.

It warns that Ofsted inspections, floor targets and league tables are driving teachers out of the profession, deterring them from working in schools facing the greatest challenges, and encouraging selfish and defensive behaviour from school leaders. It warns of extra workload, the skewing and narrowing of curriculum, and schools making decisions that are not in pupils’ interests.

These are perhaps not new or surprising criticisms of the current school system. But they seem all the more damning in this report because it does not set out to be confrontational or hostile. There is no direct criticism of government policy, nor fingers pointed at Ofsted or the Department for Education to blame them for the current situation. But there is a sense throughout the report that teachers and school leaders have simply had enough of an accountability system that they see as, at best, being a distraction.

Signs of change

For decades it has felt like schools and teachers have been on the receiving end of school accountability. Since the creation of league tables and the national curriculum, the government has been setting expectations on schools and looking to measure their performance. Accountability has meant politicians specifying targets to be reached, the subjects and exams needed to be passed, along with a constant churn of assessment reforms and curriculum changes.

But there have already been signs that this is changing. When Damian Hinds addressed the NAHT conference earlier this year, he delivered an announcement that heads had been crying out to her: he trusted them to get on with the job.

And these weren’t just words. The education secretary proposed wholesale change to the way schools would be held to account. The government would no longer intervene at schools on the basis of their exam results and only an Ofsted judgement of inadequate would result in forced academisation. Not only this, but he also set out plans to remove floor targets and the coasting school standard, and create one measure for school performance in an attempt to reduce the burden of school accountability.

His motivation was clear.

The DfE’s main priority no longer appears to be academisation or grammar schools or any other Whitehall-led reform. Its main job now is to stop the profession from losing teachers. The recruitment and retention crisis is well established. And major changes will be needed in future to cope with a surge in secondary school pupil numbers. Tes revealed earlier this year that 47,000 new teachers would be needed by 2024 to cope.

Could this mean that the voice of teachers will be given more weight from now on? The country certainly cannot afford a school accountability system that is driving improvements in schools, but also driving teachers out of them.

Then there is the question of Ofsted. The report has some stark conclusions – that its inspection reports are not reliable because inspectors do not have enough time. And that school leaders are reluctant to work in the most challenging schools because they fear they will not be treated fairly by the inspectorate.

Despite this, there appears to be a lot of common ground between the commission’s findings and Ofsted’s plans for the future. It warns that the current system is too reliant on data, and that a focus on exams and tests is skewing and narrowing the curriculum. It is exactly these concerns that are driving Ofsted’s plans for a new inspection framework that focuses on how well a school’s curriculum is delivered and meets the needs of its pupils.

Union in 'fierce agreement'

Mr Brook, who has chaired the commission, says the union finds itself in “fierce agreement” with a lot of what Amanda Spielman has said. “She is identifying the right problems,” he adds. But it is wrong to conclude that everyone is on the same page. Mr Brook may not be directing criticism at Ofsted's decision-making, but he is critical of Ofsted's reality.

The commission finds inspection reports to be unreliable, suggests they do not benefit the majority of schools and says they drive unnecessary workload. It suggests the inspectorate is at a crossroads and a major decision is needed about its future: either give it more money or scale back what is expected of the inspectorate. In the current financial climate, only the latter solution seems likely.

The NAHT has also called on Ofsted to pause its plans for the inspection framework to allow the commission’s recommendations to be considered. And he has questioned whether Ofsted has enough time to design and implement a new way of inspecting schools that can be delivered consistently in 12 months' time.

Experience tells heads that well-intentioned attempts to hold schools to account have unintended consequences. And the union has echoed concerns raised by the DfE that a major change to the way Ofsted works would lead to extra workload for teachers – even if the inspectorate believes the opposite is true.

But Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL union, has questioned the call for the framework to be paused and suggested the profession should see exactly what is being proposed before passing judgement on it.

The NAHT accountability commission report makes a series of practical recommendations for improving the system – including measuring schools on three-year average data and only comparing school performance against others with similar contexts, which could make a real difference for school leaders. It also suggests that a new way of identifying and sharing excellence in the system is needed, and calls for Ofsted to review what it needs to do in order to ensure its inspection reports are reliable.

The commission says that Ofsted's job should be to ensure schools get to a good standard, but it should be the teaching profession that leads the way in creating a world-class education system.

However, perhaps the most significant thing the commission asks for is that we change the way we think about school accountability. Accountability should be seen as a way of identifying which schools need support and providing it to them, rather than a method of sanctioning those schools that are deemed to have fallen short. It sounds very simple and it does tally with Mr Hinds’ announcements on accountability earlier this year.

Making that happen will be a much more difficult task. But if the education secretary really does want to make the system more attractive to potential teachers, then he needs to listen to the ones who are doing the job now. 

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