School accountability: The tide is slowly turning

So what is accountability? What does it mean for schools and colleges? Now is a good time to ask because we appear, at last, to be turning a corner in terms of how schools are judged.

The value of accountability lies entirely in assuring the quality of education we provide for young people and in safeguarding their best interests. And yet the accountability system applied to our schools has often been counter-productive. The language of inadequacy and under-performance is harsh, the sanctions draconian, the humiliation deep-rooted. The effect has been to stigmatise schools, making it harder for them to recruit staff, and demoralising pupils, parents and communities.

The recent publication of the school performance tables provided a harrowing illustration of the corrosive impact of the accountability system.

Its finding that 346 schools fell below the floor standard became this headline in The Sun: “Bad Education: England’s WORST schools revealed – full list of 2018’s under-performing secondary schools.”
Staff, pupils and parents reading the headline and the name of their school in this list will have felt utterly deflated. The fact that the floor standard is based upon the inherently flawed measure of Progress 8, and that performance data can never tell the whole story of a school, will have been of little comfort.

Thankfully, this should be the last time that the “floor” and “coasting” standards are applied. 

The DfE is consulting on a change which would instead see Ofsted’s judgement of requires improvement used as the trigger point for school support. This requires some careful thought to make sure it works well in practice but it is a positive step forward.

These reforms signal an understanding that accountability serves its purpose better if it is broad rather than narrow and if it triggers support rather than sanctions. If the purpose of accountability is to assure the quality of education for our pupils it needs to assess the right things and it must be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.