Categories
Uncategorized

Marking your own work – why high stakes accountability depends on school autonomy

The UK education system is just about the most accountable in the world – The combination of a high-stakes inspection system, a series of public exams and tests which are analysed and compared to other schools, a governance structure that allows for high levels of challenge and intervention, and a media that often displays a lack of trust in schools and school leaders, all add up to the sensation that many schools and school leaders feel of constantly being under the microscope.

Now, there are many views about the desirability of this model – critics say that such high-stakes accountability leads to a range of negative consequences, including an over focus on a narrow range of performance measures, high levels of stress and burnout and a disincentive to collaborate and support the wider system. Others argue that accountability provides incentives, ensures focus on the important things and leads to rapid improvement through competition. It also supports safeguarding and avoids consistent underperformance over time.

Much of the machinery of accountability has slowed down or been silenced over the last 18 months – Ofsted inspections halted and only restarting very gradually, performance tables suspended as a result of the absence of SATs and exam data, and other data such as attendance and exclusion data losing its usefulness. However, it is abundantly clear that this is intended to be a temporary hiatus. In fact, it’s possible to argue that the usual measures have simply been replaced by other forms of public judgement such as comparing the frequency of live lessons or conformity to government safety measures.

Whatever your view, there’s a key principle underpinning all this – accountability depends upon agency. In other words, if you’re going to hold someone accountable for the decisions they make, you need to allow them to make some decisions in the first place. You have to give them autonomy over the way they do things. This is key to the whole concept. It’s also the stated aim of government over the last ten years or more. The point of academisation, government’s flagship policy, is to grant freedoms – over curriculum, pedagogy, staffing and so on – which will allow for innovation and experimentation, and drive improvement. Academies and MATs can decide how they’re going to do things, and they are then fully accountable for the consequences of their decisions.

It seems, however, that in recent months, that the people driving current policy have chosen a different path. Autonomy is being eroded at an astonishing rate. Fealty to a certain approach is not just tacitly encouraged, but is actually being built into the system.

For example, we’re told that the government is considering extending the school day. Currently, the government doesn’t set the lengths or timings of the school day. As long as the day is divided into two sessions with a break and there are 380 sessions in a year, the rest is up to the school. Mandating the timings of the day wouldn’t be a tweak to the system, it would be a significant centralisation of control. And what if it doesn’t work, and produces no positive impact on pupil progress? Who is responsible – the school who has implemented it or the government who have come up with the plan?

Likewise, imagine a scenario where a school embraces DfE policy and uses every opportunity to introduce tuition programmes provided by government approved companies, dedicating all of their Covid-funding as well as core funds to provide the top up. Two years later, exam results come in and they show very disappointing progress in English and Maths. Who is accountable? The school, the tuition company, or the Department for Education who devised the scheme?

Another scenario – a behaviour adviser is allocated to a school from one of the new Behaviour Hubs being established. They give advice that has worked well in the context they have come from. The school tries to follow the advice, but it doesn’t lead to improvements, in fact there is further deterioration. Now this could be for many reasons – the skill level of staff, the relationship the school has with parents and carers, the quality of the adviser – but come the next inspection, it will be the school leaders alone that carry the can.

We’re seeing an increasingly clear government-favoured approach across a whole range of educational policy areas, including pedagogy. The Early Careers Framework is an ambitious and comprehensive piece of work, providing a highly detailed structure for teachers in the formative years of their career but with only six nationally approved providers, who are producing materials showing a high level of consistency – some differences in approach, but few in content or philosophy. Not since the days of the National Strategies during the last Labour government has it been so clear what the favoured pedagogical approach is.

We’re told that Gavin Williamson is looking into ways that he can ban phones in school. Now, I’m sure Mr Williamson is aware that schools obviously already have the ability to do this – indeed many do. My impression is that the majority of schools follow a similar policy to the one we favour – during the school day, phones should remain switched off and out of sight and if this is not adhered to, the phone is confiscated. National policy on mobile phones in school would be an absurd level of micro management, significantly eroding school autonomy.

I’ve spent my career leading schools in a high-stakes accountability system. I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable with it, but I understand the rules of the game. I have seen the quality of provision improve hugely in that time. Throughout that time, I have felt that leaders in schools had the right to make decisions over the curriculum, pedagogy, timetable, behaviour policy, style of intervention – at least as long as the school was operating successfully. I have accepted that by making decisions, I am accountable for the outcome. It just feels as though the rules are shifting.

I am concerned that in the end it comes down to mistrust of ‘The Blob’ – Michael Gove’s memorable, if slightly offensive, description of the educational establishment. That’s not what the rhetoric says – ministers will point to improvements in schools over the years, and declare their trust in school leaders. If that’s the case, then give advice and support, by all means, but allow school leaders to make the right decisions in their own context.

Then, and only then, the buck stops here.

By Dr Heery

I'm the Chief Executive Officer of the White Hills Park Trust, a current Ofsted Lead Inspector, former Head of both primary and secondary schools, and a former LA School Improvement Adviser, as well as being a practising teacher. I am interested in schools and school systems built on generous collaboration, collective responsibility and strong values.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s