- Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents


  1.  The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) represents 14,000 members of the leadership teams of maintained and independent schools and colleges throughout the UK. This places the association in a unique position to see this initiative from the viewpoint of the leaders of both secondary schools and colleges.

2.  ASCL welcomes the Committee's inquiry into school accountability, an issue in which the association has long had an interest and on which it has published a number of papers. Of particular interest are the most recent ASCL paper on Strengthening intelligent accountability and the association's response on recent proposals for a "school report card". These are attached.[7] They and the earlier papers can be found on the ASCL web site www.ascl.org.uk

  3.  It is clearly right that schools are held to account for their use of public funds and, even more importantly, their contribution to the lives of the young people whom they help to educate. Therefore nothing written here or in the other ASCL documents referred to should be taken as an attempt to avoid such accountability—the association is strongly of the view that there should be such accountability.

  4.  However, it is clear that the present system is seriously flawed to the extent of not being fit to effectively and fairly hold schools and their leaders to account. It has grown haphazardly over generations and now needs to be rethought systematically and replaced with a properly designed system of a limited number of elements carefully selected not to be burdensome but that more accurately reflect the performance of schools and those who work in them.

  5.  The accountability system has become less trusting of schools and teachers, though surveys consistently show headteachers and schools as amongst the most trusted individuals and institutions in society.

  6.  This has led to an ever expanding system of accountability that, though it does not deliver is hugely expensive. This cost is especially damaging in its, often ignored, opportunity cost: it uses a great deal of the time and energy of school leaders and teachers that would be much better devoted to the education of young people.

  7.  Part of the reason for this overburden is that schools are held accountable in too many different ways to too many different "masters". The education system is and should be primarily accountable to and for the young people in its care. When we are considering children, especially younger children, that accountability is effectively to their parents. There is also clearly a need to be accountable to society for public funds being used to good effect. But this is ramified by many different agencies of central and local government, so that headteachers, as prime leaders of schools, find themselves effectively accountable to children and parents as individuals, those groups collectively, to the governing body, to the local authority, to members and officers of the local authority, to school improvement partners (SIPs), to advisers appointed by National Strategies or the National Challenge, to Ofsted, to the Children's Commissioner, to Children's Trusts, to the Learning and Skills Council, to the press, to partnerships set up to address behaviour, diplomas or other locally agreed issues, and to many more. Further, most of these accountabilities are themselves multiples.

  8.  These accountabilities often conflict, looking for different priorities and demanding incompatible behaviours. For example, different plans and different targets have to be agreed with different bodies.

  9.  A favourite phrase of recent years has been "challenge and support", but much of the support is not actually helpful, and amounts to extra accountability lines. This is often the result of a mismatch between power and responsibility, when those advising schools have an expectation that their advice will be followed, and may be able to punish if it is not, but have no responsibility for its implementation or outcome.

  10.  In the 1970s it became accepted wisdom that schools were not accountable, and that there was too little information available about them outside their walls. This may have been true, but the subsequent tendencies for "naming and shaming", for the publication of misleading "league tables", for accountability systems to become more intrusive, and for them to distort educational practice, has been very damaging.

  11.  Following the 2003 ASCL publication on school accountability, and a Cabinet Office report on bureaucracy in schools, the then Schools Minister, David Miliband, introduced in 2004 a "new relationship with schools" as a more coherent accountability system for schools. It covered Ofsted inspections, school self-evaluation, a "single conversation" with a school improvement partner (SIP), and a school profile for parents. Performance tables were retained alongside. Since then Ofsted inspections have been linked better to self-evaluation, but league tables have become more comprehensive, the school profile is rarely used by parents, and the single conversation has suffered from the top-down target setting culture of the DCSF and its agency the National Strategies.

  12.  A balanced scorecard can only sensibly be introduced as the main accountability measure if performance tables and the school profile are abolished, and if the role of the SIP returns to what was originally intended—support from and challenge by an informed, credible peer professional.

  13.  School self-evaluation is undermined by the present system, as the self evaluation form has been imposed on schools and has been increasingly subverted to provide extra accountability. Self-improvement has been obstructed by a fixation on categorising schools as failing in various ways, leading to a culture of fear which stifles creativity and leads instead to mere compliance.

  14.  The emphasis has been upon schools as institutions to be corrected or rewarded rather than upon the need to do right by all the millions of individual young people who attend them. So a great deal too much effort is spent on deciding which schools belong in various categories of failure, and which should be awarded various prizes and plaudits. (Sometimes the same schools of course.)

  15.  Though the present Government has emphasised partnership the accountability system is predicated on, and encourages, competition between schools at a destructive level, since it is wholly based on the performance of the individual school.

  16.  Too little account is taken of progress, improvement or performance over time; so that teachers and their leaders can find that they are only as good as their most recent results. This has led to an increasing number of school leaders being dismissed, often in ways more redolent of the football club than the classroom, contributing to the sense of threat and compliance culture mentioned in paragraph 13 above.

  17.  A particular fault of the current situation is that it systematically rewards those with the easier job and disadvantages those working in the most difficult circumstances. Ofsted inspections, leagues tables and just about every other part of the system seem to be designed to give maximum discouragement to those working in deprived areas and with children receiving little support from home. It is possible for the latter group to avoid actual penalty, and even to be rewarded, but much more difficult. This in turn exacerbates the difficulties that such schools often have in recruiting first-class staff at all levels.

  18.  There is an obsession in the current accountability regime with numerical performance indicators and targets based on them. There may be a place for such approaches, but there is at present little room for anything else. And the use to which the figures and targets is put reflects a managerialism drawn from, but generally long abandoned by, private industry.

  19.  The numerical performance indicators (PIs) used are not well chosen, creating perverse incentives. For example the widely used and reported measure "Percentage of 16 year olds gaining five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C, including English and maths", has the effect of concentrating attention on those students who are close to that boundary and diverting it away from those well above or below that level, whose needs may be as great or greater.

  20.  This is compounded when an arbitrary threshold level is chosen (for example the 30% level of the above indicator for the National Challenge last year).

  21.  Too many of the measures used are norm-referenced, on the other hand, effectively putting schools into a rank order. This frequently leads to outrage that as many as a quarter of schools are in the bottom quartile, and half of them are below the median! This would amuse the numerate if it did not sadden, and if it did not do so much damage.

  22.  It is sensible to set targets based on an analysis of previous performance rather than plucking them out of the air, as happened with the 30% mentioned above or the absurd target that every child must make two national curriculum levels of progress per key stage.

  23.  However, such measures and targets should then be baselined in a particular year so that progress can be seen from year to year. The contextualised value-added (CVA) measure, for example, is a valiant effort to overcome some of the weaknesses of other measures by taking account of each student's actual progress in context. It is the most sophisticated measure of school performance but still has weaknesses, one of which is that it is re-calculated on a normative basis each year. So it is possible to improve performance, but still see a drop in the CVA measure because the improvement was not as great as that achieved by similar students elsewhere.

  24.  The obsession with numerical indicators has largely driven out other means of assessing performance. One that remains is inspection, but this too has been undermined as Ofsted inspectors often seem to rely almost entirely on what the numbers have told them before they visit the school.

  25.  To a large extent the statistical instruments of the accountability system are used without full understanding. An example is in paragraph 21 above. There is also a tendency to believe that a statistical instrument tells the whole story, when such can only ever be proxies, and to base far too much on variations so small as to be well within confidence intervals.

  26.  It is politically difficult to move away from some of these measures. The retention of the school league tables and the overblown testing regime in particular seemed to have become a test of political machismo. Yet when the KS3 tests were abolished in 2008 there was relatively little adverse comment and a good deal of praise for the decision.

  27.  It is worth contrasting public perception of the education system (which is that it is poor) with the attitude of parents and children to their school (which is that it is good). The factors mentioned above have led to a sense that there is a crisis in the school system, that it is generally performing very badly, despite direct experience of it that is almost always good.

  28.  This entirely unwanted outcome has been achieved at great cost, by an accountability system that is not only flawed but greatly overblown. At every turn there are pressures to add yet more to it, but those who demand that schools should report every instance of bullying for example, or every instance however slight of any use of force, never indicate what it is that schools should stop doing instead. These are important matters, but there is simply no need for an extra and elaborate accountability system in these areas.

  29.  The possibility of sampling and of other types of research that would not involve every school in the country in new reporting, new data collections and new lines of accountability seems to have been forgotten, presumably because the massive cost of the more simple-minded system does not have to be borne by those asking for it.

  30.  The proposed "school report card" (or as ASCL would rather have it "balanced scorecard") is an attempt to address some of the weaknesses of the present system by drawing different indicators together to offset one perverse incentive against another and to limit accountability measures to a single list. As such it is welcome, but ASCL is not convinced that it will not simply be added to the existing system rather than replacing it, or that it will not also grow without limit as every interest group adds its particular favoured element.

  31.  The association's considered response to the school report card proposal sets out very clearly the traps into which the initiative should not fall. It is attached.

  32.  The school report card for 11-16 schooling will need to sit alongside the Learning and Skills Council's Framework for Excellence, which is a similar set of indicators appropriate to post-16 education and that should apply to school sixth forms as well as colleges and other post-16 providers.

  33.  The present inquiry is into school accountability, but it is worth noting at this point that the accountability system for colleges, whilst different from that for schools, shares many of the same faults.


  34.  The accountability system for schools is immensely more expensive than it needs to be, and produces little value.

35.  It is fixated on certain numerical performance indicators and targets that are poorly understood by those who use them, and are frequently misused.

  36.  It is overdue for a complete redesign on principles of intelligent accountability.

  37.  I hope that this is of value to your inquiry, ASCL is willing to be further consulted and to assist in any way that it can.

February 2009

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