'Why now is the right time to examine school accountability'

Nick Brook, the National Association of Head Teachers' deputy general secretary, explains the case for changing the way schools are measured

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NAHT, alongside others in the sector, have long been vocal in our concern about the negative impact of accountability. We have also been determined not simply to point at the problem but come up with practical solutions.

That is why, late in 2017, we started a series of conversations with leading educationalists and academics about the problems with accountability and what could be done.

Everyone we talked to, at every level of the system, accepted that the way in which schools were being held to account was not working as well as intended and needed to change. From this desire for something better, the Accountability Commission was formed.

Our aim was to make a constructive contribution, to set a way forward, based in evidence, and to start a debate that is urgently needed on the future of accountability.

It is surely a measure of the importance of the issue that every person we asked to join the commission jumped at the invitation.

Commissions and expert panels are becoming two-a-penny. Yet I cannot think of another group or issue in education that has brought together such an incredible group of experts who were prepared to commit considerable time and organisational clout to resolving the problem.

Three of the most trusted and influential education research bodies in the UK contributed evidence: NFER, who conducted an international evidence review specifically for this project; UCL Institute of Education; and the Education Policy Institute.

National organisations at the heart of school improvement delivery provided their insights, including Ambition School Leadership; the Educational Development Trust and Teach First. Among others, Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of schools, Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the influential OECD, and policy heads from the Department for Education, all contributed to debate as expert witnesses.

In March this year the commission met for the first time. Our starting point was to establish a set of eight guiding principles for an effective accountability system, to act as tests to inform recommendations:

1. Help not hinder the provision of excellent education for all, or in other words, accountability systems should be tested against their ability to improve standards.

2. Be fair to all schools, irrespective of circumstance or context. It cannot be right that teachers and leaders are put off working in schools in challenging areas because they simply do not believe that the inspection system will treat them fairly.

3. Accept the inherent limitations of data. Pupil performance data might inform, but should never dictate, professional judgement of school effectiveness.

4. Identify signs of decline earlier. Far better surely to work with schools before they start to sink, rather than hauling them out when the damage has already been done.

5. Encourage school leaders to take responsibility for their own school improvement. The secret to a great school cannot be found in the pages of the Ofsted Inspection handbook. As Michael Barber once said, we need to unleash greatness.

6. Incentivise and value collective responsibility for pupil outcomes across schools. At present the incentives and sanctions work against this, we need to make doing the right thing the easiest thing to do.

7. Provide clear and accurate information to parents, balancing simplicity of message with being meaningful – we will gain little support for change if parents are left uncertain or confused about the quality of provision in their area.

8. Reduce workload, stress and anxiety associated with holding schools to account. It should not, directly or indirectly, drive activity that is more to do with being "inspection ready" than improving learning of pupils.   

On Friday, NAHT will publish the commission’s report, which sets out concrete actions that, if implemented, would help move us towards achieving these ambitions. Following the secretary of state’s statement at NAHT’s conference in May, we know that the DfE is listening.

And we know too that Ofsted is in reflective mode, while it grapples with how to have a greater impact with a lot less resource. 

What better place to start than by listening to this formidable group of experts from across the sector that is sharing their ambition to raise standards and improve lives.

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