Someone to watch over you

28th March 2003 at 00:00
An astonishing 21 different bodies - from Ofsted to the CRE - check up on what heads and schools do, says John Dunford. Why can't they just trust us more?

Heads are accountable to 21 different bodies, institutions or groups of people. That means approximately 5,000 people checking up on what every head in this country does.

The accountability of schools goes far beyond what is necessary to assure the public that they are effective and that public funds are being spent properly. This excessive monitoring is strangling initiative and suffocating creativity.

Heads are accountable to parents, governing bodies, local education authorities, central government, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Ofsted, the Learning and Skills Council, Connexions Partnerships, Local Strategic Partnerships, Local Lifelong Learning Partnerships and Child Protection Officers. Like any employer, they are also accountable to statutory bodies including the Health and Safety Executive, Commission for Racial Equality, Disability Rights Commission and Equal Opportunities Commission. Heads also frequently find themselves held accountable in the media and the courts. Those working in collaboration with other schools are accountable to partnership organisations.

For every new government initiative or funding stream, heads are burdened with a new accountability. For example in Excellence in Cities areas, they are monitored by the Partnership Board; specialist school heads are accountable to the Specialist Schools Trust; heads of academies are accountable to their sponsors; schools with post-16 provision are accountable to their local leaning and skills council; and all heads are accountable to an external assessor for judgments on teachers' threshold performance pay awards.

Heads are accountable annually for their performance to the governing body through an external adviser. Governing bodies (but, in practice, headteachers) are directly accountable to parents through the annual meeting and annual report.

A Secondary Heads Association paper, published today, argues for the abolition of national league tables and the role of the local education authority in target-setting, and for new lines of accountability for every new funding stream. SHA believes that other accountability measures such as the number of external exams and targets should be scaled down. The so-called "floor target" of 25 per cent of GCSE passes at grades A*-C is a particularly inappropriate measure by which to judge the performance of schools in challenging circumstances. Floor targets should be abolished and replaced by targets based on value added. Instead of frequent inspections, these schools should have an agreed programme of external support, with clear roles for external consultants to work with the head on an action plan.

There is no doubt the progress of the education system could be monitored more efficiently and effectively. The aggregation of individual test scores for every school puts them under too much pressure and distorts the picture of progress.

National testing should not be used to monitor progress towards national targets. Instead, random sampling tests should be carried out by a new body, similar to the former Assessment of Performance Unit. Monitoring of progress should be by national sampling, not national saturation, as at present.

The basis for testing - the national curriculum - should be scaled down.

Although some detail has been reduced, it remains highly prescriptive and centralised. Of course the Government has a legitimate interest in what is taught in state schools, but it is trying to control things in too much detail. The new requirement to teach a detailed citizenship curriculum is the latest example of this. Instead of detailed control of the timetable, the Government should establish a broad curriculum framework and schools should be able to interpret this.

With these changes, we would reduce the "weapons of mass accountability" to reasonable proportions. As the minister for schools, David Miliband, has said, we need intelligent accountability for schools.

The SHA looks to the new Implementation Review Unit of teachers and heads, formed as part of the national agreement on teacher workload, not only to limit the bureaucracy of new initiatives, but also the growth in accountability. All proposed new monitoring should be vetted by the unit.

In any intelligent system of quality assurance, internal self-evaluation would be used alongside external inspection. Mature organisations manage their own performance and develop ways to monitor this.

The concepts of "light-touch inspections", "earned autonomy" and "power to innovate" separately try to give schools more freedom, but we need a clearer idea of how they will work and relate to each other. School leaders and teachers will do best in a system that encourages innovation, decentralisation and autonomy, balanced by intelligent accountability.

Dr John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association

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