School accountability


A report released today by the Children, Schools and Families Committee, entitled School Accountability, paints a highly uncomplimentary picture of the government, Ofsted and the regulations and impositions upon the schools of this country.

It is the same old story. Despite the best of intentions, “the Government has continued to subject schools to a bewildering array of new initiatives". The disease is simple enough to diagnose. But it could get worse with the government’s 21st Century Schools White Paper signaling “even greater complexity in an already overly complex system of school accountability and improvement initiatives".

The report is highly critical of the government:

The complexity of the school accountability and improvement system in England is creating a barrier to genuine school improvement based on the needs of individual schools and their pupils. We support the message in the 21st Century Schools White Paper, that schools should be empowered to take charge of their own improvement processes. However, the Government’s continuing tendency to impose serial policy initiatives on schools belies this message and the relentless pace of reform has taken its toll on schools and their capacity to deliver a balanced education to their pupils. We urge the Government to refrain from introducing frequent reforms and allow schools a period of consolidation.

Ofsted is also given a firm and fair wrap on the knuckles:

We note that Ofsted has a duty to encourage improvement in schools. However, we do not accept that Ofsted necessarily has an active role to play in school improvement. It is Ofsted’s role to evaluate a school’s performance across its many areas of responsibility and to identify issues which need to be addressed so that a school can be set on the path to improvement. Ofsted has neither the time nor resources to be an active participant in the improvement process which takes place following inspection, aside from the occasional monitoring visit to verify progress.

 It acknowledges the unintended consequence of the inspectorate system:

[M]any schools feel so constrained by the fear of failure according to the narrow criteria of the Tables that they resort to measures such as teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum, an inappropriate focusing of resources on borderline candidates, and encouraging pupils towards ‘easier’ qualifications, all in an effort to maximise their performance data.

And even sketches out some enlightening conclusions:

We are persuaded that self-evaluation—as an iterative, reflexive and continuous process, embedded in the culture of a school—is a highly effective means for a school to consolidate success and secure improvement across the full range of its activities. It is applicable, not just to its academic performance, but across the full range of a school’s influence over the well-being of the children who learn there and the community outside.

There is also some good stuff about localising power away from central government, but despite an accurate diagnosis of the problem the report delivers no meaningful cure. Even with all the failure, they are still ‘satisfied that schools should be held publically [read governmentally] accountable for their performance as providers of an important public service’. Yet unless the state school system is returned to the free market, we will never see any real and lasting improvement. Whatever the frequency or nature of testing, Ofsted will only be measuring relative levels of failure.

The report should follow the logic of its own conclusion:

It is time for the Government to allow schools to refocus their efforts on what matters: children. For too long, schools have struggled to cope with changing priorities, constant waves of new initiatives from central government, and the stresses and distortions caused by performance tables and targets.