'School accountability can be a force for good'

NAHT's deputy general secretary Nick Brook sets out plan to support school improvement

NAHT, Nick Brook, accountability, Ofsted, DfE, league tables, headteachers

Children only get one chance at an education. It is right that systems are in place to identify schools that are failing and take action where problems occur. Quite frankly, the stakes are too high not to.

If we get it right, accountability can be a force for good, it can challenge underperformance and act as a catalyst for improvement. Within this, Ofsted has played, and should continue to play, an important role in helping to ensure that all schools are good schools.

At the moment, we’re getting it wrong.

NAHT’s Accountability Commission repeatedly heard that the current accountability arrangements in England are not working as well as they should. Perverse incentives, the unequal treatment of schools in different circumstances or the negative impact on teacher workload all mean that too often the current arrangements cause harm rather than drive improvement.

Ofsted’s short inspection model offers little tangible benefit to good schools and their governing bodies. Equally, the well-intentioned outstanding grade, and the associated exemption from inspection, has not had the intended impact on system improvement.

Accountability systems should always be tested against their purpose to improve standards, and in this regard the ambition of the profession could not be greater: We want an education system that rivals the very best in the world – one that values academic achievement, personal excellence and the emotional and mental well-being of every child in this country.

So, how can we reform school accountability to ensure that it helps, rather than hinders, the development of excellent provision for all children?

For starters, we should judge all schools fairly on the impact they have, irrespective of circumstance or context. The Commission believes that this means using data more intelligently.  

The power and potential of inspection are dependent on high-calibre HMI using professional judgement to determine whether a school is doing all that might be reasonably expected of it, in the circumstances that it faces - data should inform, but never dictate a judgement. As a starting point to a discussion, Inspectors would get a fairer indication of the quality of education provided through comparative performance data within “families” of schools. 

Far from enshrining low expectations teachers, leaders and governors would be properly recognised for the work they do, wherever they happen to be, removing the disincentive to lead or work in schools in challenging areas.

But we also need to be more realistic about what we expect of our inspectors.

Ofsted’s resources are stretched and inspectors themselves report that inspecting schools in the very limited time they have is becoming an impossible task.

The Commission proposes a new role for Ofsted, focused where we need them most: identifying failure and providing a stronger diagnostic insight to schools that are struggling. Critically, a ‘requires improvement’ judgement should be linked to funded support, underpinning the government’s welcome shift away from the sanctions-based approach implicit in ‘floor’ and ‘coasting' standards.

Identifying schools that are struggling is one thing, making qualitative judgements of ‘how good’ a good school is, is quite another. We concluded that the outstanding judgement should be replaced with a more robust system for identifying specific areas of excellence, anchored not in the accountability system but in school improvement.

Crucially, the Commission believes that the profession itself must step forward. We recommend that the College of Teaching is invited to set out clearly the leadership behaviours that the profession itself values, recognising that the secret of a great school is not to be found within the Ofsted inspectors’ handbook.

Our report is intended to be a constructive contribution, to start a debate that is urgently needed on the future of accountability. We believe the reforms outlined in it can reduce and eradicate many of the negative impacts currently experienced.

But the report goes further – it provides a compelling long-term vision for rebalancing top-down accountability with peer-to-peer improvement support. In doing so, we set out the first steps to be taken but do not attempt to identify every step on the journey.

This journey is likely to take some time, but we need to be clear about our ultimate destination and waste no time in starting towards it.

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