There's no "perfect" model for accountability

By Carole Willis

Tuesday 25 September 2018

This blog first appeared in TES.

School accountability is important – but schools need incentives to provide a wider education, writes Chief Executive Carole Willis

This month we've seen the launch of two key reports on school accountability: the recommendations from the NAHT heads' union's Accountability Commission on improving school accountability, and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) report What Impact Does Accountability Have on Curriculum, Standards and Engagement in Education?

As a member of the NAHT’s commission, I had the opportunity to think long and hard about the importance of accountability, and the challenges it creates in terms of unintended consequences.

Its importance – in providing data to support school improvement and inform parents and taxpayers – is demonstrated by the fact that many other countries use both national assessments and school “evaluation” (or inspection) to monitor and raise standards in education. England is not an outlier in this regard. But the challenges – only too familiar to us in England – are also echoed across the world.

NFER’s rapid review of the evidence explores what accountability mechanisms are used in other countries, and delves into the existing evidence on their impacts. It’s clear that all systems have pros and cons – there is no “perfect” accountability system.

Concerns about curriculum-narrowing, in particular, were raised in most of the countries we looked at. Subjects like literacy and numeracy are crucial for accessing other parts of the curriculum. But researchers and practitioners worry that subjects tested as part of accountability regimes are the ones that schools focus most attention on, to the detriment of other parts of the curriculum.

If we want to ensure that our children have a rounded education, then a wider set of incentives and performance metrics need to be in place. We don’t need to ditch the data. Having independent, objective – and most definitely, transparent – measures of performance in key subjects is vital to monitor standards in a way that avoids subjective judgements.

Creating the right incentives for schools

But the role of inspection bodies like Ofsted is crucial – to look at a school’s wider contribution to children’s development alongside subjects that are tested – and to set the performance data in context. The different parts of an accountability system need to work together to create the right incentives for schools.

Our review also highlighted some of the key principles that need to underpin accountability systems – aligning objectives and ensuring that responsibilities are clear across the system, and that transparent criteria for assessing performance are applied consistently. I hope that the government’s forthcoming consultation on the principles for a clear and simple accountability system will address these issues.

As a researcher, it’s also my duty to note that there is a pressing need for more robust quantitative evidence on the impact of accountability systems. This includes the need to explore effective models of school-to-school or “professional” accountability, and what impact they can have on school performance.

Finally, it’s worth noting that getting accountability measures right is important, but it is only a means to an end. The big question then is how best to bring about school improvement – how to ensure all schools are good schools, and how to strive for excellence. And importantly, where responsibility lies for delivering that change.

The NFER report ‘What Impact Does Accountability Have on Curriculum, Standards and Engagement In Education?’ is available to download here.