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Talking standards: part four of a conversation between educationalists Sir Tim Brighouse and David Cameron

In this fourth instalment of our online conversation, former schools commissioner for London Sir Tim Brighouse (pictured right) talks accountability with Scottish educationalist David Cameron

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In this fourth instalment of our online conversation, former schools commissioner for London Sir Tim Brighouse (pictured right) talks accountability with Scottish educationalist David Cameron

Dear David

So far in this exchange we have focused on the tyranny of exams. As you say – and as I have heard on my occasional visits north of the border – in Scotland exams have trumped much of the promise of Curriculum for Excellence, at least at what you call the “post-primary” phase. I would be interested to know if you think your primaries are more confident than your high schools in engaging in interdisciplinary studies encouraged by Curriculum for Excellence?

In England, even though we have our subject-dominated national curriculum securely anchored in (and by) a focus on the basics in English and maths, perhaps that very anchorage has enabled primaries to use their long tradition of “topics/projects” to pursue interdisciplinary activities enabled by creative timetabling. In the best primary schools, such an approach is embedded.

In a sense, though, what is common to both our countries is the dominance of a flawed but high-stakes external exam system over the best intentions of curriculum. Although, I suppose in England you could argue that the government, in sidelining professional advice, has made sure the new curriculum is no longer even waving a flag for the broader issues and educational purposes, which your Curriculum for Excellence so well illustrates.

So exams are a strong part of an accountability framework whereby governments hold publicly funded institutions to account. The publication of exam results school by school is fundamental to the “accountability purpose” and in England is facilitated by government, further aided by micro-analysis of comparative school performance online. In Scotland, even though you have abandoned government-facilitated publication, I am told that school-by-school secondary exam results, in league-table form, are still in local and national newspapers. But it is perceived as less mistrustful of teachers because your government doesn’t endorse it.

In England, the fierce grip of school accountability is tightened further by the behaviour of the national inspectorate, which for us sails under the skull and crossbones of Ofsted. My impression is that this body is as chalk is to cheese compared with Scotland's national schools inspectorate. Before Ofsted, HMI were well-respected, with Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector seen as an independent voice whose views of what happened in schools could be relied upon and whose advice was seen as impartial. Many think all that has long gone. There is a growing disquiet about the reliability and independence of Ofsted: that is to say doubts about, on the one hand, unreasonable variability in inspectors’ judgements about individual schools and, on the other hand, the way in which the organisation itself may be unduly influenced by the secretary of state.

Both need to be addressed.

Variability in school inspections won’t be solved simply by Sir Michael Wilshaw’s welcome decision to discontinue the outsourcing of inspections to private firms. All that will do, however, is conceal variability, which has been endemic in Ofsted since its inception, for a while longer.

So what could replace no-notice Spanish Inquisition-style inspection?

The time has come to shift the balance of inspection so that more respect and trust is given to the schools and their staff by focusing on a rigorous approach to “school reviews”, appropriately externally scrutinised and validated. That is not to deny a role for school inspection, still less an appropriate, indeed stronger role for Ofsted. But it is to argue that the present model is no longer fit for purpose.

Increasingly publicly available data about school performance in Sats, GCSEs or equivalents, A-levels and attendance determine perceptions of a school’s performance and act as a very strong starting point for school inspection outcomes. It is rare for a school inspection verdict to fly in the face of the data profile, and if it does happen it is because the school’s own self-evaluation is so strong and persuasive that the inspector is satisfied that evidence of trends and progress outweighs the data.

A better form of school inspection could be introduced with a framework determined by Ofsted, but normally operated at a regional and school level. We are assuming that a regional body (along the lines outlined in the David Blunkett report and comprised of representatives of local authorities in the region) would be responsible for operating the school inspection system and for school improvement in their region. The region would supervise a timetabled programme of “school-to-school review”, externally moderated.

It will be for Ofsted to prescribe the detailed requirements of that process, which should include staff from other schools so that staff development and the spread of interesting practice are encouraged. The outcomes and the ratings of schools (based on that process and on the usual school data, expanded to include pupil participation in extracurricular activities and surveys of pupil commitment and parental satisfaction) would be publicly available. Ofsted would inspect the regions and in the process inspect some schools randomly. Otherwise regions could request a school inspection if they have reason to believe that one was necessary.

Now, I am not suggesting that this needs to be exported to Scotland (after all, I would not dare to call it a region!) but I am suggesting that in England we could build on the framework of regional commissioners, with the proviso that ideally they should be answerable not to the secretary of state but to a representative body of local democracy (for example, the GLA and the Mayor provide a ready-made answer for London).

Such a system would be more rigorous and reliable. It would also be less expensive. Most importantly, it would replace an elaborate system of school accountability based essentially on professional mistrust.  

We need to pursue these cross-border comparisons. I know you despair at what you have dubbed “educational tourism” causing English ministers to talk endlessly about Sweden, Singapore, South Korea and, amazingly, Shanghai, as well as many points East and West. As you and I agree, it might be more sensible to look at the comparative strengths of Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland first, since at least the cultural contexts, while of course subtly different, are broadly similar.

Kindest regards,


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