- Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question 190-199)


29 APRIL 2009

  Q190  Chairman: Can I welcome Professor John MacBeath, Anastasia de Waal—her name is hidden from me but I know her well—and Anna Fazackerley, also well known to the Committee in terms of her contribution in this area. We are in this rather different environment, the Ramsay MacDonald room. We were just commenting on the fact that it would make a good school essay to compare Harold Wilson with Ramsay MacDonald—the Harold Wilson room being the one that we normally sit in. We are not asking you to answer that question. We usually get started by saying that we are doing an inquiry into school accountability. It is a part of the way that we are looking at the three major reforms affecting the education and school sector, going back 20 years. You know that we have done testing and assessment and the national curriculum, and now this is the third of them. We want to make this a good inquiry. If we do not get good evidence and we do not listen, we do not produce a good report. We want your help, so let's get started. We will use first names because it aids us with the problem of lords, knights and professors and cuts it down. Is that all right—no titles? John, is everything all right with accountability? Should we leave well alone and write a report that says, "Fine. Touch a little here, touch a little there, but basically everything is all right"?

Professor MacBeath: You could theoretically write a report like that, but no. I will not go as far as saying it is all wrong. One of the things that I worry about is the terminology and the co-option of language that we are now faced with. I do a lot of work with a lot of other countries, and when we talk about accountability in an international forum with, say, the Italians or the French, they do not understand, or they do not have a word for that notion. Trying to explain it actually gets quite difficult. You have to explain something about the politics and history of what has happened in the UK. I was going to say in England but I think that the same thing is true in Scotland where I also do a lot of work. Some people are quite mystified by the extent to which the situation is so top-down in England, particularly, and the extent to which, as the Dutch have said, there is a lack of reciprocity. That is where I would put my emphasis on accountability. Of course, accountability is something that we need and aspire to, and we want to do it well, but there is a lack of reciprocity in the system between schools and government, or between schools and local authorities. I know we will come to things like school improvement partners and so on. But do schools evaluate Ofsted? Do schools evaluate government? Do schools evaluate the pressures that are on them, which are very much top-down pressures. It is that pressure-down, accountability-up that I think we have got wrong and needs to be addressed.

  Q191  Chairman: Thank you for that, John. We shall probe that a little further later, especially that reciprocity argument. Anastasia, is all well, or should there be some changes?

  Anastasia de Waal: There need to be some drastic changes. Criticism of the two main forms of accountability that we have at the moment—testing and the inspectorate—tends to say, "Well, let's just do away with both of them." I do not think that that is the solution at all. Testing has a place and it can be effective—it can be beneficial for teachers and for pupils, as well as a good accountability mechanism. An inspectorate is vital, and I think that a good inspectorate, which looks thoroughly at schools, provision and where there are strengths and weaknesses, and which works on a progress route as well as an identifying and judging route, is incredibly important. I would say that, rather than getting rid of either, we need to overhaul them, to the extent of probably renaming Ofsted and definitely renaming SATs. It would need to be more than an exercise in rebranding. The problem at the moment is not with either testing, inspection or even the system of inspection per se, but with their role. What is happening at the moment is that the role of accountability is not working—it sounds a little trite, but I suppose we should be thinking more along the lines of being accountable as teachers and schools to children. What I have found is happening with the accountability system at the moment is that teachers and schools feel much more accountable to national targets and government pressures. Because of the pressures sometimes to create improvement when there has not necessarily been organic improvement, accountability has had a distorting effect rather than a beneficial one. That is the key problem at the moment: what is happening with these accountability methods, rather than with the accountability methods per se.

  Chairman: Thank you for that.

  Anna Fazackerley: To take a slightly different angle, although I agree with quite a lot of the points that have already been made, if we bear it in mind that we might well in this country be moving towards more of a market in education—certainly that is something that Policy Exchange would advocate and has advocated strongly—then accountability becomes more and more important. While we believe in the importance of markets, we think that a market in education cannot function properly without some real accountability. The holy grail, which all countries are or should be questing after when it comes to accountability, is to achieve the difficult balance between allowing schools the freedom to innovate and also having some proper oversight. In this country, we do not think that we have it right. We would not say that we have the accountability bit right, but we also think that we are trying to control things too much from Whitehall. Looking at Sweden as an interesting example—we are hearing lots about the fact that we are supposed to be following the Swedish model now—one thing that people are perhaps less aware of is that, although Sweden has been very successful at introducing a truly demand-led system, which is exciting and has lots of benefits that we can learn from, the problem is that schools are simply not sufficiently accountable. It is a problem that they are beginning to be aware of. John mentioned the language issue, and Sweden is one of the countries that does not have a word for accountability. There are big gaps there, which I can talk to you about in a little more detail, if you like. To pick up on Anastasia's final point, I would agree that, yes, of course we have to be accountable to children, but for us accountability is about information being provided to parents. An accountability system that works is a system that has the right information available easily to parents—information that they understand. We think that a lot of the information that is out there at the moment is pretty incomprehensible as well as perhaps being misleading.

  Chairman: Good. That gets us started. Let us get into further questioning.

  Q192  Annette Brooke: I want to start with what Anna has just touched on. It is not a usual starting point for me, looking at market forces and to what extent accountability can come into the framework with market forces. We often talk about people choosing between supermarkets or products and, clearly, if a product fails then changes take place. To what extent can we apply a market model? I ask you also to consider—given that there will be limitations with market failure—what sort of framework should we be building around a market model to make it work that way?

  Chairman: Do you want to start with Anna or do you want all the panel to answer?

  Annette Brooke: All the panel.

  Chairman: Let us change the order. Anastasia, you start please.

  Anastasia de Waal: I am not a big advocate of a market in schooling because I think parents and children want a local school. One reason we have turned to a market system or market ideas is that there are not enough good schools. It is a lack. School choice in that sense is portrayed in a positive way but if you need choice, it is probably—and we are not talking about specialisms but basics in primary school—because you need to look to find a satisfactory school. In that respect, I am not going to try to sell a market system to you because I am not an advocate. Civitas has produced a book, Swedish Lessons, about how good a Swedish system would be, but I am not necessarily an advocate of that. It is interesting that the Conservative government have said, "We will turn to a market system."

  Chairman: Conservative government?

  Anastasia de Waal: Sorry, a prospective Conservative government have said that they would want to implement a Swedish-based or market-based system, which to me suggests that they would not, as a government, be able to run schools. My bottom line is, if government cannot run a state school system, then it is going to be very difficult to run any other public services. Looking at other countries and other examples, that is not a huge task to ask. In some ways it is a cop-out.

  Chairman: John?

  Professor MacBeath: The notion of a market system is highly problematic. We currently have something in between a demand-led, kind of quasi-market system and that is one of the problems—that we are trying to run a quasi-market. We know from data over the past decade or more that the gap created by informed parent choice—parents who have the background and the wherewithal to make the choice—has not narrowed at all. It is partly parental choice that allows a school not far from here to be drained off by Westminster school, for example, where there is huge demand and a very informed supply line. All our work with schools in disadvantaged areas looks at how much they suffer from a quasi-market system, partly due to parents lacking information or the right kind of information to make the right choice. We have a problem at the moment with a market system that is working to the detriment of the most disadvantaged. In some Utopian world we might have a demand-led system. That would be very nice in theory, but how do we get there from where we are now? I think we have to address what Jonathan Kozol called "the savage inequalities" in the current system.

  Anna Fazackerley: You are right that there is not enough information, so considering the idea of a market now is quite alarming. I hope that one of the things we are going to do today is work through the sort of information that we ought to be providing to parents to get them to a point where they can make an informed choice about schools. At the moment, obviously, schools are terrified of failing and that failure is generally driven by league table performance and, as the Committee knows well, there are real problems with national assessment tests such as SATs. Those are areas we might want to touch on in a little more detail. I will refer back to the Swedish system, because I think it is useful to look at evidence rather than just talk about the theory of markets and whether we like or dislike them. One of the problems in Sweden at the moment is that, while there is obviously an exciting variety of schools, the Government are thinking about toughening up the inspection system and about introducing more regular national assessment so that the inspectors have something a bit more real to work with. But right now, if parents want to find out more about schools and the quality of schools, pretty much the only way that they can do that is by going to a recruitment fair, which is obviously extremely unfair and means that if you have a big marketing budget or sexy sounding courses that do not actually have very much merit, you can attract business. So one of the things that I would like to discuss in a little more detail with the Committee is the idea of a record card, which is something that Policy Exchange has suggested.

  Chairman: We will come to that later.

  Anna Fazackerley: Well, I hope that that would provide a wealth of information for parents, and that it would be the sort of information that would allow people to make an informed choice, rather than simply being led by perhaps misleading assessment data and league tables, which as we know are compiled by newspapers that want to sell themselves.

  Q193  Annette Brooke: I am quite annoyed that I am getting stuck with the market side, but never mind. If I could just follow on from that, Anna, you referred to the information that parents would need; could you expand on that? And John, you referred to the crucial issue, as far as I am concerned, of inequalities. Would it ever be possible to empower all parents, even with the information that Anna is going to suggest they should have, to follow through with those choices?

  Chairman: Anna has just had a bite, so let's go to John and then back to the other point.

  Professor MacBeath: This is a big, big issue—can you provide the kind of information to parents that helps them make an informed, rational choice about the welfare of their children? This is a bit ironic, because the day before yesterday I gave evidence to the Scottish Government on a report we have just done for them. One of the things they said was, "We would like you to take some of the very strong language about what is happening in deprived and disadvantaged neighbourhoods out of the report." One of the quotes from a head teacher was, "These children crawl out of hell to come to school in the morning, and a granny says to me, `Don't listen to their mother; she's better off out of this life.'" That is at the extreme end, and is the kind of thing that the press will make hay with, but I should add that it is not a purely Scottish thing either. Where we work with schools in very disadvantaged areas, the big challenge is getting to parents in those fractured, disadvantaged and alienated communities, which we have written an awful lot about. That is the challenge for schools, and the schools that are at the leading edge of trying to address it have sought all kinds of ways to bridge their relationship with parents through inter-agency work, for example with community workers. For one of the schools in our research project, 50% of the staff were actually parents, local community people, social workers and others who were helping to be the vicars or the advocates for parents with the school. So it is not just a case of how we get to the parents, but of how we get to the people who act as advocates and supporters for parents to make the bridge between some of the arcane things about school that totally baffle parents. Many parents just do not want to go through the school gate again, because it brings back the memory the horrible experience that they had at school. They attend a parents' evening and sit on a little seat at their child's desk while the teacher sits behind his or her desk. As Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has written in her book The Essential Conversation, schools are saturated with immaturity, and parents often find that coming in is just too redolent of all the things that they went through. I am of course talking about the parents who left school early, who were the low achievers and so on. Other parents know the conversation, the language, the ritual, and how to deal with that. That is unless, of course, you are a professor of education, because when you want to go to your child's school, they say, "Don't you dare go up there because I know what you will say to them!" So there is a little bit at that end as well, but parents are an incredibly important—hugely important—and complex aspect of this whole area of accountability.

  Chairman: Annette, who do you want next?

  Q194  Annette Brooke: I want Anna to comment just briefly on what information she thought should be made available.

  Anna Fazackerley: We can supply some more serious detail on this if that would be helpful, but just as a starting point I would say that a good accountability system has to include an indication of progress over time, rather than just a snapshot of performance in a given year. I think that that is something that parents really care about and it then means that schools cannot coast—there would be an incentive, even for schools that are doing very well, to keep improving. I think that parents ought to want to see performance indicators beyond academic results in national assessment tests. It is important to make it easy for parents to compare schools with similar sorts of students clearly. At the moment, I do not think that it automatically happens that you can make a fair comparison of schools—by comparing schools with similarly difficult student populations, for example.

  Q195  Annette Brooke: Can I just tease out—clearly we have different indications of parents needing some accountability—which bits of the school, or which part of a school's work, you think the school should be accountable for in the parent set-up? Apart from some accountability to parents, what other accountability routes do we need, given the sort of situation that John described?

  Anastasia de Waal: There needs to be a much more holistic approach to accountability. At the moment it is very heavily focused at primary level on SATs results, which look at only literacy, numeracy and science—literacy and numeracy are eclipsing science to quite an extent. There also needs to be an emphasis on the other subjects that are being neglected. One of the issues with inspection is that parents think that inspection, as a form of checking up on schools, is giving an alternative to the SATs results that they see. However, because of the heavy reliance on data—and results in particular—Ofsted is actually duplicating a lot of what SATs are already telling parents, and that is very problematic. We would like Ofsted to be looking at other elements as well as the academic subjects, which might be provision of extra-curricular activities and sporting activities, or pastoral care and things such as school trips—a lot of things which, in many ways, have become very much sidelined with an emphasis on accountability with literacy, numeracy and test scores. I also think that particular interest, from a parental perspective, is on teaching quality, which is something else that an inspection system could look at much more thoroughly. It could look at not just how children progress in class—I think that that is the main priority for parents, because levels do not mean anything to them in many ways, and it is progress that actually illustrates how their child is getting on—but whether children enjoy their class and whether they are particularly interested in a particular subject. We might see those sorts of elements as woolly now, but they have very much been lost in this contracted focus on what is quantifiable. One of the dangers—one of the really knotty areas—about accountability is that we seem to be able to try to be accountable only with quantifiable elements. That is very problematic, because clearly, when looking at a whole school, many of the things that are going to have an incredibly beneficial impact on learning, never mind on the wider development of a child, will be very difficult to quantify. Arguably, things such as the report card might address that, but I think that there is a danger with what is going to happen to the role of accountability. Are we going to try to quantify everything so that it fits on this neat report card, and is that going to skew broader measures of how well a school is doing? There are an awful lot of schools, particularly in inner-city areas, in which schooling has probably an even bigger impact on children's life chances than in some of the leafy suburbs. We are hearing from quite a lot of frustrated teachers who put a huge amount of effort into creating a very rich learning experience, but find that that does not necessarily equate to very high SATs results. They are getting penalised for that, and then they probably have to take the option of narrowing their approach and focusing on results, to the detriment of the school experience.

  Professor MacBeath: I cannot disagree with any of that, except the ambiguity about levels. You said that parents do not understand levels; that is true for some, but others talk about them, saying, "Well, my child is a Level 2," or, "My child is a Level 4." I am never quite sure which level is better because Scotland has it the other way round. Libby, at the Institute of Education in London, has written about the detrimental effect of the whole notion of levels that label a child as a 2 or a 4. In our ESRC study, Learning how to Learn, we looked in depth at a number of case studies of schools and found head teachers who could say, "I can go into any class in this school and I can ask any child what level they are at, and any child can say to me, `I'm a Level 2,' or, `I'm a Level 3.'" That is how they define themselves. I think that this tyranny of numbers runs through the whole of the system, from classroom assessment to school accountability, local authorities and government. I agree entirely with Anastasia about the marginalisation of all the other things—drama, music and art—that can be far more life-enhancing than some of the core curriculum. The Government say, "Okay, we recognise that these things are important, therefore let's find ways of quantifying them," but some things defy quantification. For example, with the five Every Child Matters outcomes, which I have a problem with right away, their view was, "Well, if we want these to have equal status with the core curriculum—maths and literacy, numeracy and English—we need to find ways of putting numbers on them." At the level of language, the notion of outcomes has been so corrupted that to justify things such as excellence and enjoyment, we talk about them as outcomes. Are they? Are these five Every Child Matters outcomes absolutely crucial aspects of children's life and learning? Are they outcomes, or are they something much deeper than that? Because we have the language of outcomes and the language of quantification, the big challenge is to go back seriously and look again at the other qualitative aspects of children's life and learning for which we have to be accountable. I will talk about Hong Kong, because I have been working there now for 10 years. They are worried there about this performative and accountability pressure on narrowly defined outcomes, so they have just brought in something called "other learning experiences"—OLE—meaning that 15% of children's time in secondary schools has to be spent on other learning experiences. I am going next month to Hong Kong to start the evaluation of how these things become embedded and are given as much status as the core curriculum. I do not like the term "other learning experiences" because I think that they are vital learning experiences. They are the things that Anastasia refers to, which tend to get marginalised when we go for the so-called core curriculum.

  Q196  Annette Brooke: You have touched on lots of the points that I was going to raise. I think that you have all indicated that the current system is punitive, and that there is perhaps not enough support and challenge in it. We will put the school report cards on one side for now, but do you have any alternative models of accountability that could involve more support and challenge?

  Chairman: There is a section of our discussion on school report cards, so bear that in mind. Otherwise, members of my Committee will sulk that their questions have been taken from them. Apart from on school report cards, do you want to respond, Anna?

  Anna Fazackerley: To pull in one more international model, I would say that there are some interesting examples from Canada in Ontario and Alberta. They are absolutely clear that they are not interested in the big stick approach to accountability. Accountability is very important to them, but for them, it is all about helping schools to improve and having conversations with them about how they can do that. We are probably far too much in the direction of the stick, and we ought to be thinking more about working with schools to improve them. We would like Ofsted not to inspect everybody—we do not think that there is such a need. However, if we are going to bring Ofsted in to inspect the schools that are not coming up to scratch on report cards, for example, it ought to be involved much more in an ongoing process of improvement. Key to that is the point that Anastasia just raised—I do not think we can over-emphasise it—that we have to concentrate on the actual quality of teaching. It is something that Ofsted is not very good at looking at, as we all know.

  Q197  Chairman: I thought that Anastasia said that we have to concentrate on the quality of learning, because she wanted it to be much more child-centred.

  Anna Fazackerley: I think that she also commented on the importance of the quality of the teaching. I would be very surprised if Anastasia did not agree with that. I think that that has been clearly proven to be right.

  Q198  Chairman: I am just trying to get the emphasis. What was your emphasis?

  Anastasia de Waal: Well, I think they go hand in hand. An emphasis on learning means that the teachers have to be responsive to the pupils.

  Chairman: So I misinterpreted that.

  Anna Fazackerley: Simply, I think that if a school is perceived to be weak, one of the things that we ought to be looking at is what is going on in the classroom.

  Q199  Mr Slaughter: Let us carry on from where we are—you are allowed to mention report cards. We are talking about methods of accountability. I find that these discussions just go around in circles all the time, because everybody you ask has a different opinion. I wonder if that was how the system was developed over the last 15 to 20 years—that we keep bolting extra things on, or saying, "Well, that does not give the picture, so perhaps we will do that as well." Perhaps the report card is a refinement of that, where you are now trying to pull everything together in a way that is digestible, but not open to the criticism that you are only measuring one item. Looking at that, and including the report card, you may start off by saying—I think somebody said this—"We should look not at mechanisms, but at what we are trying to test." But we do have to have mechanisms, because that is the practicality of how the system is going to work. What is your faith in the system for doing this, and do you think that the report card is achieving that?

  Chairman: Let's start with John and move across. There is a lot of material to get through, so could all of you be quite punchy with your replies.

  Professor MacBeath: The language of report cards immediately sends shivers down my spine—too many things are redolent of my own school experience. I would like it to have a different kind of name, if that is going to be the case. To address the question of which model, I have advocated for a long time a very strong, rigorous school self-evaluation, complemented by an external review—I am not necessarily talking about an inspection—that looks at how rigorous the school self-evaluation is and how it takes into account things such as the quality of learning, teaching, and the culture and ethos of the school in the long term. All the things that we have talked about are part of school self-evaluation. I know that other people have talked about this in previous Committee reports but, in lauding the fact that Ofsted have moved to a system of self-evaluation, it is still not what I mean when I talk about something that is deeply imbedded in the day-to-day work of teachers and young people. It is not an event that happens once a year when you fill out something called a self-evaluation form, and it is not something that happens when the inspectors arrive, but it breathes through the whole culture of the school, and people—the students and pupils themselves—have the tools to look constantly at the quality of their learning and are sophisticated enough to do so because they understand how to account for it. I would put the quality of learning before the quality of teaching, with our ex-chief inspector's remark in mind. In his book, he writes, "Teachers teach and children learn. It is as simple as that", but it is not as simple as that. It is far more complex, because the bulk of children's learning is out of school. I think that part of the issue for self-evaluation and accountability is looking at the learning that takes place in and out of school. Chairman, I am aware of the time constraints, but may I add a quick plea for the work going on with the Children's University, which will be launched in the House of Lords in June? Children who take part in out-of-school activities—the kind of activities that Anastasia has been talking about—are absolutely vital to feeding back into what happens in the classroom, so we cannot have an accountability or self-evaluation system that does not look at learning in school and outside it—with the family and in the neighbourhood, community and so on.

  Anastasia de Waal: As I have already said, I do not think that we need to overhaul the principles of the system, so we do not need to replace an inspection system or replace testing. I think that we could have much less testing, in the sense that we could just have testing at the end of primary school. One set of tests at primary school is definitely sufficient. John mentioned the problem of things being an event, and I think that is the big issue at the moment. There is huge pressure around inspection and testing. They should be by the by processes that check out the quality of the school and the levels of the pupils. A lot of criticism about testing has talked about the pressures and difficulties that it creates for children and the terrible stress that they are under. I do not think that testing is actually problematic per se for children. Children quite like a test; it is quite exciting to be able to show what you know. The problem is that schools are being coerced into trying to demonstrate progress that they have not been able to make, and in many cases that is perfectly legitimate. They may be doing a fantastic job but, because of circumstances, they are not reaching the benchmark. One of the problems at the moment, and why that is happening, is because of the terribly standardised approach to children and the teaching situation. We are only talking about homogenous entities. We tried to address that a bit with things such as contextual value added but it has not really had an impact, and I think that the same applies to inspection—it is about very rigid and narrow criteria. If you are doing fantastic things that do not fall within that remit, quite frankly, Ofsted does not have time now to look at them. A lot of inspectors feel very frustrated that they cannot look at the great things that schools are doing; they just need to look at their criteria. The important thing is that testing actually tests what the pupils know, and it needs to be done in a randomised way. To do that we need to sever national testing, accountability and how the Government are doing in education policy from school-level accountability. How Johnny at Key Stage 2 in class 6 performs in his SATs test is different from how the Government's education policy is doing. The problem at the moment is that they are inextricable, which is leading to all the distortions. The same applies to inspection. There is a lot of emphasis on getting schools to a certain inspection level so that the local authority can make sure that it is hitting its target and we can say that schools in this country are doing better than before. But that is not beneficial to schools, and it is one of the reasons why there is a climate whereby people feel that teachers do not want to be accountable, do not want to be told when there are weaknesses and do not want to improve. I disagree with that. They do, but the problem is that the interventions are not actually helpful in the long term. They are short-term interventions, which will help them reach a superficial level. That will get a better result, but not necessarily improve learning and teaching.

  Anna Fazackerley: We would like a system with a report card. In fact, the report card was our idea last March.

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