- Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Supplementary memorandum submitted by NASUWT

  This supplementary evidence responds to the questions posed by members of the Select Committee at the oral evidence session held on 16 March 2009.


What should schools be held accountable for?

  1.  The NASUWT shares the Government's view that the principle emphasis of the work undertaken by teachers and headteachers is to focus on teaching and learning. Therefore, an effective system of school accountability would rightly place significant emphasis on this aspect of a school's work. However, it is also apparent that schools make a broader contribution to the wellbeing and development of pupils and society more generally. This is reflected, for example in the duty on schools to promote community cohesion and pupils' wellbeing. Therefore, it is appropriate that these aspects of schools' work with pupils should also form part of school accountability. This is reflected in the Government's initial proposals for the form and content of the School Report Card.

To what extent should schools be accountable to Government and Ofsted?

2.  As a publicly-funded universal state service, the education system is held and managed in the public interest and must therefore, be accountable at national and local level to those democratically elected by the public. The education system should not be accountable to Ofsted. The body responsible for inspection should provide the means by which the system is held to account and not be an entity to which the system itself is accountable.

What effect does the manner in which results are reported have on schools?

3.  The public has a right to information about the education system and therefore it needs to be made publicly available in an appropriate way. However, the current publication of inspection reports and performance tables, which do not reflect accurately the full range of work that staff in schools undertake with children and young people, serves only to intensify the high-stakes nature of school accountability with its significant negative consequences for perceived failure.

4.  The implications at school-level of this are increased pressure and stress on staff and learners and a skewing of the curriculum offer made to pupils because the focus is to meet the requirements of the school accountability regime rather than the needs of pupils being paramount.

5.  This approach to accountability has promoted a culture of teaching to the test, led to curriculum inflexibility and narrowing and has put staff in schools under pressure to target resources at borderline achievers to push them into a higher grade to meet performance league table targets. In practice, the use of performance tables has worked to undermine teachers' professionalism and autonomy by breeding competition between schools rather than supporting collaboration and the sharing of good practice.

How can it be ensured that parents are involved in the assessment process?

  6.  The NASUWT has no objection in principle to the use of appropriate means by which the perspectives of parents and pupils should be able to make a contribution to an appropriate system of school accountability. Clearly this is dependent to a significant extent on ensuring that parents have effective, timely and proportionate access to information about their child's progress at school in a variety of ways.

7.  However, the widely advocated approach of relying heavily on opinion surveys of parents and pupils is problematic in many respects, particularly in relation to the fact that views of pupils and parents on the quality of provision in schools may differ significantly depending on individual circumstances, such as whether a parent's child has SEN or accesses some other form of specialist service and that not all parents are inclined to or well placed to provide feedback in this way. This highlights the point that while information gathered in this way may be useful, a degree of caution has to be exercised over its use.

Would school standards plummet if Ofsted disappeared?

  8.  There is little evidence that performance tables or school inspection have contributed to raising standards of attainment in England. Comparison with systems in other countries and elsewhere in the UK indicates that it is possible to achieve and sustain high educational standards and retain public confidence in the education system without the flawed system of school accountability in place in England. Consequently, the NASUWT does not believe that school standards would plummet if Ofsted in its current form disappeared.

What would make the system of inspection more effective?

9.  This is a critical and wide-ranging question that goes to the heart of the issues that the Committee is investigating. The NASUWT's initial written evidence sets out in detail the reforms that the Union believes need to be put in place in order to establish a more effective system of inspection in particular and school accountability. However, it is clear that the principles upon which inspection frameworks are established, the purpose of inspection and the role and function of the public body charged with inspecting schools in a more constructive system of inspection would require fundamental change to the way in which Ofsted currently undertakes its responsibilities. The Union believes that these principles should ensure that systems of inspection:

    — 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;

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

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

    — 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.

What could be done to address variability in the inspection process?

  10.  The Committee is right to highlight the issues of variability in the inspection framework. The NASUWT is clear that a number of issues drive the unacceptable degree of variability in the system.

11.  First, Ofsted training of its inspectors is not open to rigorous external scrutiny. For this reason, serious questions about the capacity of individual inspectors are raised on a consistent basis by teachers and headteachers. This is reflected in feedback from members, particularly in relation to the frequent failure of inspection teams to take account of the policy context within which inspections are being undertaken.

  12.  Second, Ofsted has no effective system for quality assuring its inspections. It is, therefore, unable to learn lessons from incidents of poor practice and thereby put in place reforms designed to secure greater consistency.

  13.  Finally, the definitions used by Ofsted for judging performance are not clear or consistent and have been subjected to significant changes in meaning since Ofsted was established, the effect of which is to continually "raise the bar" in relation to judgements of acceptable school performance. This is a particular issue in respect of the way in which Ofsted judges and views performance it assesses as "satisfactory". It is therefore not surprising that the way in which descriptions of performance levels set out in the inspection framework are applied in practice can vary to a significant extent. As part of a package of wider reforms to the inspection system, these issues would need to be addressed if issues of variability are to be tackled successfully.

Do teachers have sufficient redress to respond to critical remarks from Ofsted?

  14.  See 15 below.

Should there be an appeal process in response to Ofsted judgments, and if so, what form should it take?

15.  An effective system of complaints and appeals is an essential feature of an effective and equitable system of school accountability. However, this is clearly not the case in respect of the current system. In its work representing teachers and headteachers, the NASUWT has gained significant experience of supporting members involved in complaints against Ofsted. The Union is particularly concerned that 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 Union is also concerned that the current system makes it extremely difficult for individual members of staff to pursue complaints about an inspection. This relates, to a significant extent, to the lack of transparency in the complaints process. Complainants may be told that there is evidence to back up the inspection findings but are not told what that evidence is. These aspects of the system are in urgent need of reform.

16.  The timescale for making complaints is too rigid and excludes cases where it has taken time for the full evidence to become available. Timescales for making complaints should be amended so that complainants have the time necessary to gather evidence. Ofsted should also consider introducing an independent advice line to enable schools to raise issues and concerns immediately following an inspection.

  17.  There are significant concerns about the process used to deal with complaints to Ofsted directly from the public and parents. These can remain on file and be used to inform inspection even if they are not valid complaints in the terms of Ofsted's remit.

What would be the appropriate length of notice for Ofsted inspections?

  18.  In the current high stakes school accountability context, variations to the degree of notice given to schools simply represent tinkering with a fundamentally flawed system. In some respects, current proposals to introduce no notice inspections could compound the problems associated with the current inspection system as staff in schools are under pressure to be prepared to respond to an inspection at all times in effect schools are on a permanent "war-footing". In a fit for purpose system of accountability the extent of notice of inspection would be based on an objective and informed consideration of the circumstances of each individual school and how schools can be helped to enhance and develop further the quality of their educational provision.

Is the manner of inspection Ofsted carries out in relation to child welfare as apt as the manner of its inspections in schools in assessing quality assurance?

19.  The NASUWT does not accept that any aspect of the current system overseen by Ofsted represents an effective system of assessing the quality of educational provision. Given the trend for Ofsted to seek to bring greater degrees of similarity between its inspection frameworks across all its areas of responsibility, there is certainly a risk that the problems associated with the school inspection system, with which the NASUWT has direct experience, could translate into its inspection of child protection. Oftsed's remit has increased significantly since it was first established. In the NASUWT's view, there are legitimate questions to be considered in respect of the extent to which this remit has now become so broad, that Ofsted is now not capable of discharging any of the specific functions effectively.

Does the value of self-assessment have a weighting in the assessment process?

20.  See 22-23 below.

Do external operators give the self-evaluation process more credibility and is this worth the cost?

21.  See 22-23 below.

What role should self-evaluation play in school accountability and the inspection process?

22.  The views of staff in schools on levels of performance and areas of strength and weakness based on informed professional reflection have the potential to provide an important source of information by which a fit for purpose system of school accountability may form judgements about the education system. This would depend critically on this system being based on the clear understanding that self-evaluation in any form is only valuable if professional judgements are trusted and respected. However, the use of self-evaluation as part of the inspection process continues to undermine work to reduce teachers' and headteachers' workload and organisational bureaucracy.

23.  Evidence from NASUWT members suggests strongly that the need to collect evidence and produce documentation to justify schools' self-evaluations is leading to increased bureaucratic burdens on schools and is generating a culture of "self-inspection" involving inappropriate, intrusive and unnecessary managerial scrutiny of teachers' professional practice. However, previous systems of school inspection which were less reliant on self-evaluation and made greater use of external inspectors, because it was based on the same flawed principles of inspection as the current system, did not represent a more effective or equitable approach. Before questions of the use or otherwise of external inspectors can be considered meaningfully, more fundamental reforms to the purpose and nature of inspection must be pursued so that judgement of the appropriate balance to be stuck between internal and external assessment of performance can be made within a recast school accountability context.

Is too much money spent on the inspection process?

  24.  It is clear that the costs of holding public services to account must be proportionate. This principle was reflected clearly in the Government's Office of Public Sector Reform's 2003 document "Inspection for Improvement." However, it is also clear that such systems must be resourced to an extent that allows them to undertake their responsibilities effectively. The NASUWT believes, therefore, that public money directed towards a constructive and equitable system of school accountability would represent an appropriate use of these finite resources. However, given the negative impact of the current system, it is clear that the money spent on funding Ofsted is not being deployed as effectively as it would be if the system were to be reformed on the basis set out in the NASUWT's initial written evidence. Ofsted's budget, as with all public sector inspectorates has been reduced in real terms within the current public spending settlement from previous levels. However, it is clear that the fundamental solution to the problem of school accountability in the system in England does not lie in either increasing or reducing further Ofsted's budget but by reforming the basis upon which school inspection is undertaken. An inspection system reconstituted on these terms would then allow an objective assessment to be made on the costs that would be associated with establishing and maintaining the accountability system.

Can school report cards provide greater accountability to the community?

25.  See 26-27 below.

Do school report cards have a valuable and legitimate place in terms of having accountability for schools?

26.  As made clear in the NASUWT's initial written evidence, the proposal by the Government to introduce a School Report Card offers an important opportunity to re-examine some of the problems associated with the current school accountability regime and to consider ways in which more positive approaches to school accountability might be established in future. The basis upon which the current system attempts to measure and report school performance is extremely narrow, as the Government has acknowledged and is inconsistent with its proposals for 21st Century Schools. The judgements reached by Ofsted and those reflected in performance tables are also often contradictory.

27.  In the NASUWT's view, successful implementation of a useful, purposeful and constructive system of school accountability through the School Report Card cannot be undertaken satisfactorily without detailed and considered analysis of the extent to which such a system could replace a school accountability regime based on narrowly focused performance tables and an outmoded and highly detrimental system of school inspection. If the aim of the Card is to provide a streamlined, consistent and holistic view of the work of staff in schools, then it has ability to do so.

March 2009

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