How should secondary schools be held to account?

By Sarah Maughan

Wednesday 15 May 2013

I’m very lucky working at NFER in that I have a large team of incredibly knowledgeable people around me – we work well together sharing out the jobs that need doing.  But when the consultation on secondary school accountability was launched I knew this was something I wanted to lead on myself.  The ways in which schools in England are held to account is at the very heart of whether our education system delivers what we, as a society, need it to or not.

What does our current system consist of?

We currently have a high stakes accountability system, in which poor results have a huge impact on schools, headteachers, teachers and ultimately the students.  Poor results can lead to changes in management teams, or ultimately even to school closure.

The current secondary school accountability system is focused on GCSE results in a number of core areas.  Two forms of measures are used – firstly absolute attainment at GCSE, such as the percentage of students achieving five A* to C including English and mathematics, and secondly progress measures – how much progress students have made since their key stage 2 results.

The measures that we choose to use reflect an implicit view of what we believe our schools are for – because what is reported is what is focused on in schools.  The current measures reflect a view that academic success is the primary aim of a secondary school.

So, what are our secondary schools really for?

We really need to have an explicit and shared view about the purposes of our schools, before we can design an accountability system that is aligned to those purposes.  In NFER’s response to the secondary school accountability consultation I refer to the World Bank view of what education is for: ‘education enhances people’s ability to make informed decisions, be better parents, sustain a livelihood, adopt new technologies, cope with shocks, and be responsible citizens and effective stewards of the natural environment.’ Clearly this definition is much broader than the academic focus of our current accountability system.  An alternative view of the purpose of the education system might be that it exists to ensure that all our children perform to the best of their abilities, whatever their strengths and weaknesses, and feel that what they have achieved is worthwhile and valued.  Again, this is likely to reflect a broader view of education than one in which students can pass a standard set of examinations in a number of core academic areas.

So what implications do these broader views have for our secondary school accountability system?

No one would disagree with a focus on the core skills of literacy and numeracy – it is clear that all young people need skills in these areas for them to go on and experience a successful and satisfying life.  Beyond that, we are supportive of the average point score 8 measure as it should encourage all students to experience a broad and balanced curriculum – through which they can select a number of subjects, including academic and vocational qualifications, to best meet their areas of interest.  This is much preferable to the EBacc performance measure in which only a core of five academic subjects, with no recognition of success in more creative or practical subjects, was targeted.

Any measure of average performance can mean that poor performance by one group can be masked by strong performance of another group.  I argue in our consultation response that there should be a particular focus on how well schools narrow the gap between the highest and lowest performing groups.  One possible way of doing this would be to publish the average results for the top 20 per cent and bottom 20 per cent of students in any school.

Perhaps at least as important as the makeup of these performance measures, is the opportunity raised through this consultation to publish a wider range of measures of success in schools.  If we do want all our young people to develop to their full potential, and to feel that their skills are valued, the opportunity to recognise achievement beyond the core curriculum should also be a key part of our accountability system – how well do the students play musical instruments, participate in competitive sport, contribute to their community, demonstrate leadership, or maintain the natural environment?  How satisfied are the students and their parents with the opportunities that are on offer?

If our secondary schools are going to develop the future leaders, active citizens, great parents and innovators that we need from our future adults, we need an accountability system that recognises those broader areas as well as the achievement of particular qualifications.  Now is an opportunity to show that we value the much broader contribution that our schools can make.  Let’s hope that the outcome of the consultation moves us in the right direction.