Why we must hold our schools to account

6th December 1996 at 00:00
R J S Macpherson argues that the processes of accountability in schools serve political purposes. But is this good politics?

Why does the current (and foreshadowed) Government favour national tests, school inspections and "value-added" policies long after they have been shown to have major technical and ethical flaws? And while they might be a "bit rough" on teachers, and serve some purposes, are they actually good politics?

The current criteria and processes of accountability guarantee dramatic, traumatic and periodic disclosure of comparative student and school performance data. This provides regular opportunities for politicians to capture public attention and berate their political opponents. The chances of sustained political dividends coming from this general strategy depend on its coherence with purposes.

The main value behind the many purposes of education, its metavalue, is the growth of knowledge. The metavalue of politics is the growth of power, one's own power, and the lessening of opponents' power. There are no "right" politics, only "good" politics - those that advance the growth of power. Ten standard political strategies can be used to evaluate accountability as symbolic politics.

First, image management. Good politics in education would not normally include the imagery of meanness, failure, unreliability and profligacy. Yet the Office for Standards in Education school inspection process is an exemplar on all four criteria. It has yet to discount prior achievement effects, demonstrate the reliability of contracted inspectors, define "value added" in substantive educational terms, or use "value added" analysis to justify its own costs.

Second, good politics build a stronger power base. Since the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's concept of "value added", specifically "students' relative progress", lacks construct validity as a proxy for school quality or local education authority services, it contradicts this rule. It is also providing unreliable data with the inevitable result that government strategists and strategies are being "dumbed down" concerning school improvement and LEA performance. This puts politicians at risk, encourages parents into a politics of resistance and promotes divisive choice and partisan politics instead of success and quiescence.

Third, good politics co-opt and build on pre-existing power structures. The Government is actually being held hostage by obsolete accountability structures that struggle to allocate credit and blame. With the HMI politically compromised, the Government now needs trustworthy sources of independent and expert advice. OFSTED and SCAA have only retained procedural accountability. They have devolved educative and public forms of accountability to schools and distanced themselves from the performance of teachers and schools. They purchase policy legitimation research, push a policy myth of "value addedness" and manufacture political crises to order. While their loyalty and puissance have been useful, their dynamic conservatism, constant warfare and low public legitimacy are now a serious political liability.

Four, good politics exhibit earthy pragmatism. They earn support by serving others' interests. Educative accountability helps people clarify, evaluate, plan and publicly discharge their obligations concerning learning, teaching, leadership and governorship. As Nolan put it, holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office. Those who govern and administer education are obliged to practise accountability policies that both evaluate and demonstrably improve the educative quality of services. Good government is good politics.

Five, good politics never presume support and legitimacy. They constantly obtain permission to govern. Symbolic politics trade off the legitimacy of education and government. Recall, the delegation of the authority to govern in a democracy proceeds with the consent of the governed. This consent is conditional on the stewards of that delegated authority, elected members and appointed officials, remaining accountable. Accountability is the basis of our political system and smart politics.

Six, good politics "add value". Democratic accountability "adds value" by investing political authority in "the people". The four values added are: individualism - to maximise the achievement of potential; liberty - to maximise freedoms consistent with order; equality - to maximise equity of opportunity, outcomes and access to power; and fraternity - to maximise co-operation in building a wholesome society. Public accountability uses these four criteria to evaluate the "value added" by governments and their agencies. Accountability in education has become a symbolic politics of blame and credit that insulates government in England and Wales from public accountability.

Seven, good politics convert complex and plural public values into flexible policy settlements. Such settlements also have to be detailed enough for local use and display subsidiarity, pluriformity and complimentarity. The LEA-initiated school self-evaluation models of the 1980s relied on collegial professionalism. The currently favoured consumerist policy has the same political flaw; it represents another temporary triumph of political ideology over pragmatic community pluralism.

Eight, good politics spread the risk. In contrast to contemporary assertions concerning teacher deficiencies, the old HMI spread their bets. They used a number of indicators to reflect the range of legitimate purposes of schooling. The current accountability policy mix (legislated client rights, mandatory and external summative evaluation, comparative raw student achievement data and the promotion of choice) is justified by government for its capacity to improve schools and offer public accountability. This justification is educationally implausible, technically incoherent, ethically immoral and, inevitably, because it can't work, politically foolish.

Nine, good politics offer "all things to all men", to the greatest degree possible, recursively, ad infinitum. Educationists seek fair and reliable assessment means of showing what worthwhile learning has occurred. Policy-makers seek robust, inexpensive and easily quantifiable measures. Government agencies want to attribute blame and success for political purposes. Silly politics spend resources controlling saliency, providing scapegoats, and differentiating perceptions of success by interest groups. Good politics are a recurrent process of partial reconciliation in constant search of broad support.

Ten, good politics co-opt "the public interest". Symbolic politics might displace the educative role of public accountability policies in order to sustain the saliency of education as a national political issue but it will be silly politics in the longer term. A range of accountability practices are needed in a plural society to reflect the inevitable mix of public, professional and consumerist theories in competition about the purposes of education. Educative and public accountability policies may even be subverted by economic privatism in the short term, but accountability will eventually have to respect the complex nature of "the public interest" in a democratic society - assuming there is such a thing as society. And that politicians prefer to govern a reasonably civil society.

Associate Professor R J S "Mac" Macpherson is from the University of Tasmania. This article is derived from the paper he gave to the recent British Educational Research Association Annual Conference at Lancaster University. He is author of the forthcoming Educative Accountability: Theory, Practice, Policy and Research in Educational Administration, Elsevier Science, Pergamon Press

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