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‘My three-point plan for a new culture of accountability in our schools’

Professor Colin Richards, a former HMI and a primary sector specialist adviser to Ofsted, writes:

Schools accept the necessity for accountability. The issue is what form that accountability should take, and in particular the place (if any) of inspection. Teachers’ professional associations are currently canvassing their ideas – the NUT teaching union with its Stand Up for Education campaign, the ATL with proposals for its New Vision of Inspection in Education and the Association of School and College Leaders with Leading the Way: blue-print for a self-improving system.

Although commendable in many ways, such proposals for accountability are running too far ahead of current political and educational reality. New and trustworthy accountability is required but needs to be developed incrementally and cautiously from where we are without alienating political and parental opinion.

I believe that the new accountability would need to be rendered at a national, school and individual level.

In order to secure accountability at national level and to inform national policy related to raising standards, government needs to work with professional associations to devise a non-intrusive system for assessing pupils’ performance over time. This would require the setting up of an independent national body to oversee annual or biannual national surveys of children’s performance across all areas of the curriculum at age 11 and possibly 14, based on the sampling of assessment items and pupils. With results published periodically this would answer the legitimate question: “Are national standards rising or falling?”

At an individual level parents need to be assured that their children are making appropriate progress. To provide this information without excessive workload, teachers need to engage in ongoing, level-less assessment against a limited number of assessment criteria per year and to report the results. This would require more valid and reliable forms of teacher assessment than in the past to judge and promote learning. Some of these are currently being developed as a result of the “beyond-levels” initiative but would need to have their reliability externally evaluated. 

More controversially, while this work is being undertaken, there would be a political imperative to retain some limited form of national testing of primary pupils focusing on parents’ main concerns – their child’s performance in reading, mathematics and basic writing skills. Such national tests might be administered twice in a child’s primary career: not on entry to school but once at the end of Year 1 on a one-to-one basis, and once collectively at the end of year 5 (followed where necessary in both cases by more remedial or more challenging work within the same school). The assessments and test results would be reported to parents and the schools to which their children transfer, but would not be collated as a “measure” of school effectiveness nor issued in the form of performance tables – thereby hopefully eliminating "teaching to the test" and a narrowing of the school curriculum. 

It is at the school level where controversy is most likely. In order to secure school accountability to parents, the government needs a system which assures families that individual schools are providing a suitable quality of education and which triggers action should that quality not be evident. The most obvious way of judging school quality is inspection by suitably qualified and experienced inspectors – the Ofsted model currently facing severe criticism from professional associations and others. It is clear that the Ofsted methodology, especially regarding inspection criteria, recruitment and training of inspectors, needs to be reconsidered to make inspection “fit for purpose” and therefore more valid and reliable as a medium for school accountability.

There are encouraging signs that senior managers at Ofsted recognise the need for reform. Almost certainly, whatever the strongly held views of professional associations, it would not be politically realistic to press for Ofsted’s abolition – certainly in the short and medium terms. However, change is in the air and lighter-touch inspections of good schools (why not of outstanding schools also?) are being mooted. Arguably teachers’ professional associations should get behind, or at least not discourage, recently proposed reforms. However, alternatives to Ofsted inspection need to be explored – albeit cautiously and without claiming too much for their effectiveness. For example, it would be important to complement the proposed lighter-touch inspection regime with piloted schemes of externally moderated school self-evaluation. The hope would be that these inspections might eventually be trusted to provide robust accountability of schools by schools, without the need for old-style formal inspections.

But that prospect is some way off. In the meantime, parents will expect a reliable answer to their legitimate question: “How good is my child’s school?”

This proposed three-level system would provide government, schools and parents with appropriate but not overpowering information about progress and performance of the system as a whole, of individual schools and of individual pupils. It is offered as a possible way of reconciling teacher professionalism with reasonable accountability to parents, politicians and the wider public.


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