- Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by Aspect

  1.  The Association of Professionals in Education and Children's Trusts, the representative body for school advisers, inspectors and other educational improvement and children's services professionals, offers the following comments to assist the Select Committee inquiry.


  2.  Our submission may be summarised as follows:

    An effective school accountability system is unavoidable in today's climate of sharpening global economic competition, as part of upskilling the labour force, and should be designed to positively assist capacity-building within schools. The different forms of such accountability—formal inspection, local authority reports and school self-evaluation and performance measures—should be better aligned, to maximize their practical usefulness. Certain lessons may be learned in England from the Scottish model. An independent inspectorate remains an effective mechanism, but cannot by itself secure school improvement in all desirable respects.

      Ofsted inspections:

      — are conducted by appropriately trained and qualified inspectors;

      — should normally be held every four years and include effective classroom observations;

      — should be subject to a short period of notice; and

      — may be proportionate in scale, but should remain rigorous in nature.

      The School Improvement Partner role, as originally conceived, has proved of limited value and the resultant trend is rightly towards greater professionalism in external school monitoring, support and challenge activity. A school report card is a welcome concept, which could assist in measuring progress against all of the Every Child Matters outcomes for children.

    Is it right in principle that schools should be held partially accountable for their performance?

      3.  It is right and inevitable, in the context of today's globalised markets for goods and services, where a highly-skilled workforce is of critical importance to developing a competitive national economy. An effective school system is a key building block in upskilling a national labour force and schools will therefore become more publicly accountable for their performance.

    What should be the fundamental purposes of an accountability system for schools, and in particular, to whom should schools be accountable, for what should they be held accountable, how should they be held to account and what should be the consequences?

    4.  An accountability system should help schools to genuinely build capacity to improve concrete outcomes for children. Schools should be accountable to a range of relevant interests, including children, parents and carers, employers and local communities. This is best achieved principally through local authorities, since they are democratically accountable bodies with unique local identities and relationships.

    5.  Schools themselves should be held accountable not only for raising pupils' educational standards but for all five Every Child Matters outcomes, to the extent that they can influence these outcomes.

      6.  The forms of accountability will vary as each principal mechanism offers distinct positive features. However, they should be better aligned in England than has traditionally been the case. Formal Ofsted inspections, local authority reports, and school self-evaluation and performance measures, all have a role to play but can prove more useful if carefully inter-linked.

      7.  The advantages of a more joined-up accountability system can be identified by reference to Scotland. HMIE in Scotland operate a school inspection model designed to recognise the specific responsibilities which fall on schools and on local authorities to secure improvement. This is a proportionate model, under which the extent of HMIE engagement with schools varies with a school's capacity to ensure improvement.

      Each school has a "core inspection", and "follow-through" activity by the local authority is itself proportionate. Core inspections identify the key strengths of a school, and HMIE evaluate the capacity of the school to achieve further improvement—taking account of the quality of leadership, the ability of the school to accurately identify priorities for improvement, and earlier progress.

      8.  "Follow-through" options are matched to the needs of the individual school, and include:

      — The school and LA taking responsibility for planning further improvements and involving parents.

      — LA progress report to HMIE on improvement after two years and LA reports to parents.

      — HMIE discusses action plan with school and LA and arranges visits and meetings as needed to monitor and advise. Follow-through inspection and report to parents after two years.

      — HMIE works with the school and LA to draw up an action plan and agree a detailed programme of activities.

      9.  Key principles behind this approach are:

      — a stronger emphasis on supporting improvement, and developing capacity for further improvement, through core and proportionate follow-through;

      — a focus on meeting the needs of all, across a range of national priorities; and

      — increased emphasis on actual outcomes.

    Is the current accountability system of inspection and performance reporting for schools fit for purpose?

      10.  It is capable of improvement, as a system. The individual components are broadly fit for purpose, but their combined effectiveness can be enhanced through a linked-up approach.

    How should schools be held accountable for their performance in the context of increasing collaboration in education provision?

    11.  The inspection system should be operated in relation to individual schools, and carefully extended to collaboratives and networks, at this stage in the evolution of collaborative provision.

    Is an Independent Inspectorate an appropriate mechanism for holding schools to account?

    12.  A rigorous inspection system operated by an independent inspectorate is an appropriate mechanism. The strengths and limitations of periodic formal "snapshot" inspections are well known, and the low level of complaints confirms the quality of most inspections.

    What is the impact of the inspection process on school performance, including confidence, creativity and innovation?

    13.  Ofsted has at times commissioned independent research into this issue. An example is the 2007 report by the National Foundation for Educational Research entitled Evaluation of the Impact of Section 5 Inspections. 1,500 schools responded to the survey and the report noted that "nearly two-thirds of survey respondents and just over half the case study interviewees considered that the inspection had contributed to school improvement. The main way it had contributed was by confirming, prioritising and clarifying areas for improvement."

    The conclusions pointed to a growing confidence in schools' own self-evaluation processes, and, in terms of school performance, noted that "both the qualitative findings and analysis of the schools' outcomes data provide some indication that assessment, monitoring and pupil tracking are the areas where inspection has had the greatest impact."

      14.  However, it is unlikely that any "snapshot" inspectorial system could by itself advance school-level creativity and innovation. These facets are more likely to be encouraged by external developmental services working consistently with individual schools over time. The Audit Commission's national school survey for 2008 showed 94% of schools rated the effectiveness of their local authority school improvement service in challenging the school to do better as satisfactory or above. The more detailed questions asked, in relation to the local authority's support for the education of looked-after children, promoting sustainable development, delivering the Every Child Matters outcomes and developing extended schools, also generated high levels of satisfaction including changes through innovative and creative approaches.

    Are inspectors appropriately qualified and trained to carry out inspections, particularly in the light if the need to report against Every Child Matters outcomes?

      15.  They are, but the Ofsted inspection system is still evolving. This will involve changes to future inspector training, recruitment and guidance. We acknowledge that Ofsted lays down clear principles for school inspection contractors in relation to inspector quality, selection, competencies, roles, integrity and performance management.

    Is it appropriate for inspection reports to be placed in the public domain?

    16.  Yes. Parents, children, and other interested parties, are fully entitled to examine inspection reports on individual schools.

    How often should inspections be carried out and how long and detailed should these inspections be?

    17.  There is a case for introducing a standard four year period between school inspections, matching the period of office of school governors. However, a school may undergo major change at other times, for example due to the retirement of an effective headteacher, and such a significant development could trigger early re-inspection. With regard to the length and detail of the inspection, a key issue is the availability of time for meaningful classroom observation by inspectors, as the quality of teaching and learning remains central to a school's effectiveness. This is difficult to reconcile with the suggestion in the recent Ofsted consultation over post September 2009 changes that "no inspection will last longer than two days" unless the available size of teams is reviewed.

    How much notice, if any, should a school receive of an upcoming inspection?

    18.  A short period of notice is desirable to assist inspectors in making reliable arrangements to meet a school's senior management team. However, Aspect acknowledges this is not the only factor here and that there is a case for nil notice inspections given a tendency within some schools to over-prepare for inspections.

    In the context of an inspection, what is the value of :

    —  the school's self-assessment

    19.  This is of considerable value, if it is robust and honest. One of the key techniques for ensuring that this is the case is to genuinely involve the whole school, including teaching and non-teaching staff, in the self-evaluation process.

    —  the results of national tests

    20.  These should be taken into account, and remain of value provided that they are considered within the broader social and economic context of the institution.

    —  the school's contextual value added scores

    21.  These are of real value in measuring progression within a wider context, although different systems for calculating value added have been used within the education service.

    How much weight should be attached to these elements in the inspection report?

    22.  The school's self-evaluation, provided that it is robust, deserves significant weight. There is some validity to the argument that the present system displays a degree of over-reliance on national test results. A revised inspection report format might reflect the improving overall quality of schools' self-assessment, as Ofsted inspectors are increasingly experienced in accurately identifying the quality of a school's self-evaluation.

    In an inspection, how should emphasis be balanced between educational appointment and other aspects of a school's provision, such as the Every Child Matters outcomes?

    23.  These essentially deserve equal emphasis, since they are closely interlinked. It is often the case that children who underperform in academic terms face other genuine vulnerabilities in their lives. If a longer-term perspective is adopted, improving a child's ability to learn can help him or her to overcome certain vulnerabilities later, and this point could be reflected within a broad balance.

    Should inspections be tailored to the current performance levels of the specific school being inspected and, if so, to what extent?

    24.  A good school can deteriorate quickly if, for example, a key leader falls ill. Nonetheless, a proportionate approach to inspections, inevitably based on the recent overall performance of a school, can be justified to a degree on educational grounds. However, effective classroom observations can take time, and this limits the extent to which inspection of higher-performing schools can be scaled down.

    Has the introduction of a light-touch inspection regime for higher-performing schools been appropriate?

    25.  In overall terms, the S.5 model of lighter-touch inspections has proved appropriate, principally due to improvements in the general quality of school self-evaluation and the growing expertise of inspectors in identifying where self-evaluation remains unreliable.

    What are the mechanisms for identifying schools which are underperforming and are those mechanisms adequate?

    26.  The role of the local authority and its school improvement reports is vital, since there is more frequent contact between the LA and local schools than is the case with Ofsted inspection teams. Appropriate liaison between inspection teams and local authorities should be enhanced.

    How effective has the classification of "schools causing concern" (special measures or improvement notice) been in supporting improved performance in the schools concerned?

    27.  The answer to this rests on the practical availability and quality of the external developmental support deployed to support a school's recovery following such classification. In overall terms, this classification has triggered valuable support and proved effective.

    Have School Improvement Partners (SIPs) been of benefit to schools?

    28.  A two-year national evaluation of the "New Relationship with Schools" project was commissioned by government and published by York Consulting in 2008, which included useful analysis of the SIP role. Key issues included the time commitment required to perform this role and the level of professional skill and knowledge involved. Although DfES had stated that "we believe it is right to give a firm steer to secure a high proportion of secondary headteachers as SIPs. We intend that three quarters of them should be serving or recent secondary headteachers". (A New Relationship with Schools: Next Steps, DfES and Ofsted joint publication, 2005), the evaluation revealed a different picture. It noted that "there are differences in the support role played by different SIP types, with full-time local authority employee SIPs more commonly capacity-building, monitoring progress, brokering and managing support than serving headteacher SIPs. A key factor influencing this is that the latter are more constrained than other SIP types to deliver additional resource for schools or to be more flexible to emerging demands" (page79). Departmental data suggests that the proportion of accredited SIPs actually performing the role who are also serving headteachers is significantly below original government targets. The low level of time commitment to the role required of SIPs, and the lack of central funding for adequate skills-based training for these postholders, has not helped. This may explain why the Government has required the new "National Challenge Advisers" to devote significantly more time to work with individual schools.

    29.  Aspect believes it is important to distinguish between leadership roles based on line management responsibilities and those which rest on external developmental functions sitting outside any such hierarchy. This matters in because these two types of leadership involve different skill sets. The former relies on the skills of effectively exercising managerial authority over others. The latter requires modern "soft" influencing and negotiating skills not supported by managerial authority, which are often related to new forms of knowledge management, innovation, scenario and contingency planning and changes to organisational cultures.

      30.  Our conclusion, therefore, is that the distinct SIP role, as originally conceived, has not particularly benefited local schools, and that genuinely professional external school improvement roles are necessary.

    Is the current procedure for complaints about inspectors adequate?

      31.  Yes. Formal complaints are properly and consistently recorded and investigated, under a well-established procedure, and follow-up actions taken where deemed appropriate. A broad view is taken over the time available for registering such complaints and the existence of the complaints procedure is notified on the Ofsted website and in relevant publications.

    What aspects of a school's performance should be measured and how?

    32.  Measurements should be provided for academic attainment, the size of gaps between identifiable groups of pupils, pupil progression and those elements of broader outcomes for children under the ECM agenda which a school can influence.

    How should these performance measurements be reported and by whom?

    33.  Measurements relating to key performance areas should be reported, in a regular and user-friendly fashion, by schools and local authorities, so that individual schools, and the broader progress of the schools system within a local area, can be monitored.

    To whom should this information be made available?

    34.  This information should be available to all interested parties and, given, the wide range of concerned interests, should be publicly available.

    What is the effect of the current system of public performance reporting (Achievement and Attainment Tables and the online School Profile) on a schools' performance, including confidence, creativity and innovation?

    35.  Detailed objective research would be required to answer this with accuracy, since current school-level perceptions are sometimes linked to a traditional general resentment of school accountability mechanisms.

    What is the impact on schools of league tables published by the press?

    36.  The varied quality of press reporting can result in negative effects for individual schools. However, much of the regular media coverage is factual.

    How useful is this information to stakeholders, particularly parents?

    37.  League tables in themselves are clearly of limited value, although they do furnish a level of basic information and remain popular with parents.

    What might a school report card provide that is not covered by the current performance reporting system?

    38.  A School Report Card, is potentially valuable, although we need to retain the benefits of external formal inspection within an overall school accountability system. The elements we would wish to see incorporated into such a card include the school's performance with regard to attainment, narrowing "gaps", pupil progress and a range of wider outcomes, since a school's work with other partners in children's lives, is a key factor in general performance. The local context of the school should be described in the introduction to the card and the scores contained in a School Report Card should be easy to interpret, with the proviso that measurements are contextualised. Consistency in the reporting of all features is important, which raises issues of appropriate weightings to individual categories. An overall score is Aspect's preferred methodology, but general guidance on the significance of different types of score is also important.

    Are there any issues which the school report card should avoid or seek to inhibit?

    39.  Reporting parents' and pupils' views can sometimes be too bald, especially where based on unrepresentative samples. This argument is not to under-value parental and pupil feedback as schools should be required to maintain systems for collating parent and pupil views as influences on the SEF and on school development planning.

    Is the school report card potentially a sound basis for informing parents providing a set of prioritised outcomes for schools, providing a starting point for Ofsted inspections, and providing a management tool for government?

    40.  It can potentially contribute to these desirable objectives.

    Could the school report card appropriately replace some Ofsted reporting?

    41.  No, it is important that a comprehensive external inspection system is maintained.

    February 2009

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