Accountability is now the elephant in the room

1st March 2013 at 00:00
Educational reform and improvement should be a shared endeavour. Let's stop playing the blame game

Education, economic success and personal well-being are increasingly interdependent. No education system can afford to stand still, so addressing the target that Scotland should become a world-leading learning nation by 2025, as outlined in the recent Goodison GroupScottish Futures Forum report (TESS, 1 February), is a necessity not an option.

To achieve that goal we need to be clear about our aspirations, put in place the processes that are required to achieve them, and be accountable for getting there.

Accountability is the "elephant in the room" when it comes to educational reform. We know that its impact can make or break well-intentioned innovation, yet it is often detached from and lags behind reform programmes.

The problem with accountability in education is that it is largely reactive; you are held accountable by others and only when there is a problem. Indeed "blameworthy" is sometimes given as a synonym for accountable.

Accountability should be about willingly giving an open, honest and rounded account that addresses complexity and is not based on simplistic measures. But it should be much more positive than that - more about culture than process.

What, then, should characterise our approach to accountability? Education systems that are fundamentally strong need different systems of accountability from those of poor or uneven quality. The evidence suggests that Scotland has that fundamental strength. However, we need an approach to accountability that challenges implications that good is good enough.

Improvement should be a shared endeavour, rather than one that is largely driven externally. Personal and group ownership of accountability will engender sustained improvement in ways that external pressure never can. That requires clarity of purpose and a willingness to give and receive challenge without defensiveness.

We need to trust teachers more but that trust should not be based on blind faith but on respect, and that respect is best established through openness and a commitment to professional accountability. Opening up the classroom requires courage and confidence. If learners are not being well served, that must be addressed.

To coin a phrase, "accountability is for learning". We should focus on the need to learn and improve. Self-evaluation is a sine qua non of improvement, not simply as a set of processes but as a spur to informed action. It should focus on impact. Seeking good evidence about how much of a difference we are making should be seen as an essential component of our professional toolkit. Too often data are regarded as a threat, rather than as information that can stimulate questioning and inform improvement.

What does this mean for inspection? One of the most frustrating aspects of my time as head of HMIE was the persistent gap between what we were trying to achieve and how those efforts were portrayed and perceived. For me, inspection is about improving the learning of our young people and the quality of their school experience. Of course, inspection must address weaknesses in how learners are being served. However, I am also clear that sustained high-quality education will not be achieved through external pressure and a climate of compliance. Yet publicity surrounding inspection consistently refers to "watchdogs" and highlights problems. Not surprisingly, therefore, a visit from inspectors too often gives rise to feelings of apprehension or even fear.

Inspectors must be rigorous and objective, but also humane, positive and constructive. "Praise where you can and find fault where you must" is a maxim that I learned on becoming an inspector and it remains a central tenet of inspection to this day. It is also vital that inspectors practise what they preach - seeking constructive criticism and constantly striving to improve. In fact, the evidence we have suggests that, by and large, this is the case. Most people are positive about inspection most of the time, particularly those who have first-hand experience of the process.

Creating a culture of accountability which is both positive and constructive takes us well beyond a focus on how inspectors go about their task. The paradox is that an effective system of external evaluation is precisely the way in which trust can be seen to be well placed. Inspection can create the space for innovation and improvement by giving independent assurance that quality is being maintained and enhanced. That implies an approach to external inspection which is independent and credible, and which focuses on those areas that matter most and make the biggest difference.

Validating a school's commitment to its own improvement is a good starting point. That means confirming that the school is serving pupils well, using all the means at its disposal to establish its strengths and areas for improvement and taking action to bring it about. If a school knows what it is seeking to achieve, can provide good evidence about current performance and show how it is responding to that evidence, then inspectors can report that positive picture and seek to help others learn from that experience.

That is accountability in action and it is a road that inspection in Scotland has been travelling for at least the last decade.

Accountability matters too much to be an afterthought. We need to ensure that it is wholly aligned with the other elements in the reform programme, and that it has the integrity and the credibility that can help to preserve and even create the space for genuine innovation.

Graham Donaldson is professor of education at the University of Glasgow and author of Teaching Scotland's Future.

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