Schools could be judged on the health, happiness and opinions of pupils by a new performance measure now under development.
Researchers at Manchester University are looking to compare schools in a way that would take account of factors broader than exam results, such as pupils' general wellbeing. They think the measure should also acknowledge growing collaboration between schools and variation within schools.
A preliminary report is due in the autumn when researchers hope to discuss their findings with officials at the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
If adopted, the measure would help officials check whether schools are meeting their legal duty to look after pupils' all-round welfare. Headteachers have repeatedly argued that ministers' fixation on exam results can conflict with the Every Child Matters initiative.
Chris Chapman, from Manchester University's school of education, said: "We are still assessing schools around educational outcomes. This narrow focus is not going to encourage school leaders to deal with the other issues expected in the Every Child Matters agenda and could act as a barrier to progress."
Efforts have been made before to improve the way schools are held accountable. Valued-added scores were added to league tables in 2002 to take account of pupils' prior attainment. Then contextual value-added (CVA) scores were developed to reflect wider factors such as deprivation levels, pupil ethnicity, gender and parents' occupation. "Some have CVA as a panacea," Dr Chapman said. "But it is still based around exam results."
His team hopes to develop a measure that will allow parents to compare how well schools did with pupils from specific ethnic, social or academic groups. It should also consider what pupils think, he says.
"At the moment, measurement is done by adults to children," said Dr Chapman. "I would like to see greater student involvement."
James Royal, head of Blackrod Church School in Bolton, welcomed the move. "Children need to be involved as much as is humanly possible, alongside professional judgements from adults, because without their input it is difficult to get it right," he said.
The Manchester researchers argue that with growing collaboration, schools are much less suitable as the unit used to assess the performance of an education system. Dr Chapman said more schools were sharing staff and pupils, but their enthusiasm for successful joint working could be dampened if the accountability system did not change to reflect it.