'We need more focus on testing and inspection, not less'

1st August 2016 at 06:00
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Accountability is essential to improve schools, argues TES columnist Michael Tidd – but surely we can be more intelligent than the systems that are thrust upon us

Barely a day goes by without someone calling for the abolition of Ofsted, or of Sats, but fewer of us do the opposite: I want to argue for more focus on testing and inspection. For every child who passes through our schools, this is their one chance. We have a duty to get it right – not to mention accounting for the public expense. And while it’s tempting to imagine a wonderful world in which none of these things exist, we need to make the most of the system we’ve got.

But I do think accountability is a bit back to front, particularly in primary where too much emphasis is placed on teacher judgement. Too many seem to think that criticising teacher assessment means mistrusting teachers when, in fact, it is for their benefit that I think we ought to scrap statutory teacher assessment.

The problem with our accountability system is that it’s too reliant on soft inputs leading to hard outcomes. Those who argue for more teacher input into assessment put staff in the difficult position of having to balance their honesty and accuracy about an individual pupil with the school’s need to meet thresholds and floor standards. The pressure means some feel forced to corrupt their own assessment judgements to satisfy the demands of a headteacher – their employer.

The flaw here is in the use of the outcomes. We still invest too much in the numbers on the page when it comes to school accountability. Unfortunately, this means that the temptation to massage those numbers becomes ever greater. Teachers and school leaders feel they have some control over the inputs, whereas they have none when it comes to outputs. Floor standard percentages are set in stone (aside from the bits that the ministers get to fiddle) and woe betide those who fall below them.

But surely we can be more intelligent than that? The easiest way would be to flip the system completely. Let’s have hard inputs into the accountability system but a softer approach to the outputs.

One of the first complaints about testing for accountability is the fact that tests are only a snapshot. But if we admit to that flaw, then we can account for it. In reality, under the old system of levels, the vast majority of pupils ended up with the same judgement on tests and teacher assessments. Some did better on the test, some worse, but in most schools, in most years, the overall outcomes were broadly the same.

If we moved to a more intelligent look at the outputs of accountability measures, then we wouldn’t need to be so worried anyway. Rather than high-stakes judgements leading immediately to “intervention” from the nearest academy chain or regional schools commissioner, perhaps we ought to make better use of Ofsted. If a school’s results are concerning, then it’s right that the inspectorate should get involved. But that doesn’t need to be immediately punitive. Schools know their children better than the tests do, and if there is a case to be made, then there should be an opportunity to make it.

For those worried about children missing out on the key threshold because of stress in a test, it would be perfectly possible to present a case to an inspector that explained the outcomes. After all, we would already have the evidence of pupils’ previous work and achievement.

If there is a sound case, then there ought to be someone to listen to it. And if the inspector finds that the dip can be explained, then there is no need for drastic action, and the school can continue its good work. No pressure on teachers to massage the figures, no overreaction to meet quotas and, more importantly, a fair and equitable system that judges all schools equally.

Michael Tidd is deputy head at Edgewood Primary School in Nottinghamshire

This is an article from the 29 July edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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