- Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by NASUWT

  The NASUWT's submission sets out the Union's views on the key issues identified by the Committee in the terms of reference for the Inquiry and examines significant broader implications in policy and practice in the education system for the development of effective and constructive approaches to school accountability.

The NASUWT is the largest union representing teachers and headteachers in the UK, with over 270,000 serving teacher and school leader members.


    — The NASUWT believes that an effective school accountability system must be based on principles that ensure that it can operate in an effective, development focused way. — The current school accountability regime, based on performance tables and Ofsted inspections is not only punitive, divisive and demoralising but also undermines the ability of teachers and headteachers to provide high quality personalised learning experiences for pupils.

    — The operation of performance tables and Oftsed inspections has created a high-stakes environment in the education system in England with a continual emphasis on improving demonstrated pupil attainment and achievement while skewing the curriculum offered by schools by encouraging an increasing focus on core subjects.

    — Inspections in particular continue to undermine work to reduce teachers' and headteachers' workload and organisational bureaucracy.

    — A growing number of international studies show that other comparable countries—including in other UK nations—have reached and maintained higher educational standards without the use of the crude systems of school accountability that have become a negative feature of the system in England.

    — Ofsted's ability to play a positive role in raising standards is undermined by the inappropriate arrangements in place by which it is held to public account.

    — The current focus of inspection practice that simply resorts to more frequent inspection of schools in such circumstances will not support continued and further development of the quality of provision in the schools.

    — Current arrangements in respect of the use of data in inspections, the training of inspectors and the management of complaints are inadequate.

    — The proposals by the Government to introduce a School Report Card offer an important opportunity to re-examine some of the principles and practices associated with the current school accountability regime and to consider ways in which more positive approaches to school accountability might be established in future.


  1.  The NASUWT believes that an effective school accountability system must:

    — place minimal burdens on schools;

    — be consistent with and support the principles underpinning the School Workforce Remodelling Agenda, which seeks to tackle teachers' and headteachers' workload and raise standards of educational achievement;

    — not require schools to undertake any special preparation;

    — make use of the wealth of data that is already available and not require schools to prepare or collate data for the sole purpose of inspection;

    — be supportive and focused on helping schools to improve;

    — focus on schools' management arrangements and processes and their outcomes for pupils and staff in terms of efficiency, equity and effectiveness;

    — not duplicate other systems of monitoring, performance management and support;

    — operate coherently with other systems of audit and performance management advice and support, including that that is carried out by Her Majesty's Inspectors (HMIs) and local authorities;

    — provide judgements that are fair and in which the profession and the public can have confidence;

    — reflect appropriately the contribution made by schools to pupils' broader development and wellbeing;

    — not act in a way that impedes the ability of teachers and headteachers to use their professional skills, talents and expertise to meet the learning needs of the pupils for whom they are responsible;

    — not undermine policy priorities and strategies established by democratically accountable governments; and

    — reflect the changing nature of the responsibilities of the school workforce, including teachers and headteachers, in the context of a continually evolving policy environment.

  2.  There can be no objection in principle to the establishment of appropriate mechanisms for holding schools to public account for the work that they can reasonably be expected to undertake with learners. However, the current school accountability regime, based on performance tables and Ofsted inspections rather than reflecting these critical principles, operates in a way that is not only punitive, divisive and demoralising but also undermines the ability of teachers and headteachers to provide high quality learning experiences for pupils.


  3.  The operation of performance tables, currently in the form of the Department for Children, Schools and Families' (DCSF) Achievement and Attainment Tables, has created a high-stakes environment in the education system in England with a continual emphasis on improving demonstrated pupil attainment and achievement. This high-stakes environment has had the effect of skewing the delivery of the curriculum by encouraging an increasing focus on core subjects and stifling creativity and the scope for teachers to use their professional skills and expertise in the development of innovative and personalised approaches to teaching and learning. It has promoted a culture of teaching to the test and has put staff in schools under pressure to target resources at borderline achievers to push them into a higher grade.

4.  The accountability regime continues to foster competition between schools. In this way, the operation of inspection and performance tables works against the direction of travel of current Government policy which aims to enhance educational provision by creating structures where schools work in collaboration rather than competition with each other in the interests of all pupils in the communities these schools serve regardless of the specific school they happen to attend.

  5.  Ofsted inspections continue to undermine efforts to reduce teacher and headteacher workload and organisational bureaucracy. Pressure to generate and produce documentation to justify schools' self-evaluation outcomes is leading to increased bureaucratic burdens on schools and is generating a culture of "self-inspection" involving inappropriate, intrusive and unnecessary scrutiny of teachers' professional practice. This impact was evidenced in the findings of the NASUWT's audit of teachers' and headteachers' workload published in March 2008 which set out the significant extent of inspection-related causes of excessive workload.

  6.  The high-stakes context of school accountability that performance tables and inspection generates also has wider negative consequences for the development and implementation of Government policy. For example, the New Relationship with Schools (NRwS) agenda, which aims to streamline and modernise the institutional relationships between schools and local and central agencies of government, has been impacted upon negatively by unreformed systems of school accountability.

  7.  Two key stands of the NRwS agenda, the development of School Improvement Partners (SIPs) and the School Profile illustrate these concerns. In the case of SIPs, development of this role was intended to be the means by which a coherent "single conversation" between schools and outside agencies could be facilitated. However, feedback received by the NASUWT from members suggests that, in practice, engagement between SIPs and relevant staff in schools is focused to a disproportionate extent on achievement of outcomes designed to satisfy the requirements of the school accountability system.

  8.  Similarly, the School Profile, which aimed to give parents relevant and meaningful information about school performance and progress, has, as the Government itself acknowledges in the context of its proposals to develop a school report card, failed to secure its intended objectives. In many respects, the lack of engagement by parents with the Profile has been as a direct result of the continued publication of the Achievement and Attainment Tables to which parents' attention is drawn by their widespread use by the media in its publication of crude "league tables" of school performance. As a result, the information given to parents and other relevant stakeholders, either directly by the Government or unofficially by the media, on school performance, does not allow them to form balanced and holistic views of school performance and adds to the difficulties described above in respect of the impact on learners and staff in schools of the current system of school accountability.


  9.  There is little evidence that performance tables or school inspection have contributed to raising standards of attainment in England. As the largest teachers' union in the UK, the NASUWT has gained direct experience of approaches to school accountability in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and it is instructive to consider the key distinctions between these systems and that in place in England.

10.  In respect of performance tables, it is notable that the Department of Education Northern Ireland (DENI) has never produced performance tables as part of its public accountability measures, while the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) and the Scottish Government both abolished performance tables in 2001. In relation to inspection, in Northern Ireland for example, the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) takes a collegial, supportive approach to the inspection of schools and colleges. There is no grading system for inspections in Northern Ireland, although following the inspection, schools are expected to produce an action plan addressing areas for improvement. A comparable approach is identifiable in the context of the inspection system in Scotland.

  11.  Beyond the UK, research also highlights clear distinctions between the system in place in England and that established in other countries. Extensive research by the European Commission's Eurydice European Unit, undertaken in 2007, provides extensive evidence of forms of school accountability that are based on a range of different approaches that do not rely on performance tables or punitive systems of school inspection but that are associated with high levels of public confidence and rising standards of educational achievement.[15]


  12.  There can be no meaningful objection in principle to the establishment of a dedicated school inspection organisation within the context of a fit for purpose system of school accountability. However, the problems identified above in relation to the way that Ofsted operates in practice draws attention to serious issues in respect of the basic constitution of Ofsted and means by which it relates to its stakeholders, Government and arrangements by which it is held to account for its activities.

13.  The establishment of Ofsted was associated with a significant alteration in the relationship between democratically accountable ministers, the central Government departments for which they are responsible and the organisational machinery of school inspection. The creation of Ofsted gave executive responsibility for the inspection of education to Her Majesty's Chief Inspector (HMCI) as head of a non-ministerial public body (NMPB). To date, Ofsted is the only official public body within the education system in England with this status. The aim and consequence of this alteration in arrangements for the inspection of education in England was to end the ability of ministers to control the discharge of school inspection within set legislative frameworks. The outcome of this policy has been that the effective freedom of Ofsted to interpret its remit within the legislative framework established by Parliament is, to all intents and purposes, unfettered, notwithstanding its formal accountability to Parliament required by its NMPB status. While Parliament, through select committees and other structures, may be able to undertake informed and appropriate analysis and, where appropriate, criticism of Ofsted's work, there are no effective means by which it can direct Ofsted to amend its policy and practice where this is deemed necessary.

  14.  This has led to Ofsted being given the scope to act in a profoundly undemocratic and unaccountable way. As a key element in a high-stakes system of school accountability, priorities that Ofsted establishes in relation to those areas it is empowered to inspect have a considerable influence on practice at school level, regardless of the extent to which these reflect the policy of Government or the intentions of Parliament when it enacts education-related legislation. Reform of the status of the public agency charged with undertaking inspection of the education system must therefore be a central element of future policy in relation to school accountability.


  15.  Concerns have been identified at school level that inspection judgements are increasingly data driven and that conclusions about school performance are reached by inspectors in advance of inspection. While a mix of sources of evidence about school performance based on data, professional dialogue, the views of staff on school performance and progress and evidence gained directly from visiting schools may have an important role to play in any fit for purpose system of school inspection, the purposes to which this information is put within the context of the current punitive and unconstructive school accountability regime simply serve to undermine the ability of teachers and headteachers to undertake their professional responsibilities and compromise public confidence in the state education system. This calls into question the mechanisms by which schools are identified as "failing" or "underperforming" by Ofsted and publication of inspection reports generated through this flawed system compound these problems.

16.  The NASUWT notes the interest of the Committee in the notice given to schools under the current inspection regime, the extent of detail that should be included in inspection reports and whether inspections should be tailored to the current performance levels of individual schools. This latter point clearly relates to the introduction of a light-touch inspection regime for schools Ofsted identifies as "higher-performing".

  17.  Consideration of these points highlights the extent to which the current inspection regime fails to reflect the principles of effective approaches to school accountability. In a fit for purpose system of accountability, with supportive and development focused school inspection mechanisms, the provision of detail in inspection reports, the extent or otherwise of notice of inspection and the tailoring of inspection to the identified needs of schools would all be based on an objective and informed consideration of the circumstances of each individual school and how schools can be helped to enhance further the quality of their educational provision.

  18.  However, in the current high stakes school accountability context, variations in the detail of inspection reports, the introduction of short or no notice inspections and the use of so-called proportionate inspection, simply represent tinkering with a fundamentally flawed accountability system. A number of the changes proposed to the inspection regime by Ofsted for inspections conducted from September 2009 may have some impact on the effect of inspection on staff and learners in schools and the NASUWT would welcome the opportunity to consider these complex issues with the Committee in more depth in oral evidence. However, the key issue for the Committee to consider is that while changing aspects of the operation of the current regime may lessen or worsen to some extent the negative consequences for the education system of the way in which inspection is undertaken currently, establishing circumstances where inspection makes a positive contribution to raising standards and sustaining improvement will require a fundamental recasting of the purpose and form of inspection rather than a series of additional amendments to the fundamentally flawed inspection system in place at present.

  19.  Notwithstanding the significant flaws in the current model of inspection, for all inspectors, both HMI and Ofsted continue to contract externally, effective training and development remain key concerns. For this reason, the fact that the nature, scope and quality of Ofsted's training programmes are not open to independent scrutiny remains an important area of concern. Without any meaningful assessment of the fitness for purpose of Ofsted's provision of training and development for inspectors, confidence in the ability of inspectors to undertake their wide-ranging and complex responsibilities will continue to be compromised. The need for effective training is emphasised by the increasingly complex range of issues that inspectors are required to address including, as the Committee identifies, the contribution of schools towards achievement of the Every Child Matters outcomes and the promotion of pupil wellbeing, the effectiveness of school-level policy and practice in respect of the workforce and the duty on schools to promoting community cohesion.

  20.  The complaints procedure is heavily weighted towards the judgement of the inspector and it is not acceptable that there is no effective appeals process to challenge an inspection judgement that relates to standards. The current system makes it extremely difficult for individual members of staff to pursue complaints about an inspection and the timescale for making complaints is too rigid and excludes cases where it has taken time for the full evidence to become available.


  21.  In light of the limitations and negative features of the current system of school accountability, the proposals by the Government to introduce a School Report Card offer an important opportunity to re-examine some of the principles and practices associated with the current school accountability regime and to consider ways in which more positive approaches to school accountability might be established in future.

22.  In considering the School Report Card proposals, it should be noted that the consultation document issued by the Government sets out broad and general principles that aim to support more detailed subsequent work on the detail on the School Report Card proposal. It is therefore premature at this stage to set out details of the specific areas of school activity that should be reflected in the Card and the relative weight that should be ascribed to them in the formation of judgements about overall school performance. However, the Government recognises that one of the limitations of the current school accountability regime is that it is not aligned closely enough with the Government's broader vision for the 21st Century School. The Government also makes clear its view that Ofsted inspection reports are subject to limitations in terms of their usefulness as a means by which a balanced view of school performance can be presented. Most significantly, the Government recognises that the judgements derived from performance tables and those generated through Ofsted inspections are frequently contradictory and that additional pressure is placed on schools by two distinct and, in important respects, non-complementary accountability mechanisms.

  23.  It is clear that the Government intends to undertake a detailed and thorough consideration of all the key issues associated with approaches to school accountability as part of its development of the School Report Card. In light, however, of the Government's initial rationale for proposing the development of a school report card, it is apparent that the continued existence of a school accountability regime based on narrowly focused performance tables and an outmoded and highly detrimental system of school inspection has become a legitimate area for debate.

March 2009

15   Eurydice (2007) School Autonomy in Europe: Policies and Measures. Brussels, Eurydice European Unit. Back

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