Is The Schools Accountability Edifice Getting A Make-Over?

Duncan_gove

It seems that talk of  accountability is everywhere in the UK currently. Today, the Prime Minister revealed the new plans for Government accountability.In education, the situation is, historically, a little more comlex. Last night Radio 5 featured a report which presented fairly convincing evidence that many schools now  ‘flip’ between examinations boards in order to find the one most likely to improve exam results across subjects, such is the pressure brought upon schools, by national league tables, to be accountable. When ex-QCA curriculum head , Mick Waters, describes head teachers as using sleight of hand to play the system, we need to take notice.

That report looked at secondary schools, but a review announced last week is designed to fully investigate claims that primary schools are ‘drilling’ students to pass end-of-school exams, rather than teaching them. Michael Gove, the Sec. of State for Education has already registered his concern over ‘the risk of perverse incentives, over-rehearsal and reduced focus on productive learning‘. He already seems to have pre-empted the findings of the review with the news today (I know, it’s hard to keep up) of new ‘readiness to progress’ measures of student progression for students aged 5 to 11.

Could this be the start of a new, more considered, less brutal, approach to making schools accountable? We should certainly hope so. People who work in schools invariably tell you that the ‘accountability framework’, imposed upon schools during the past decade,  became, some time ago, distorted, inefficient and demoralising.

But what’s this? In the very week that the blunt instruments of accountability appear to be headed for the shredder, comes a study suggesting from Wales – who abandoned public league tables in 2001 – that removing the fear of ‘naming and shaming’ has resulted in a lowering of student attainment, compared with their English peers. It would appear that fear is still an incentive to, well, do whatever it takes.

Two questions arise from the recent tumult of claim and counter-claim on educational accountability: are exam results the best indicator of a school’s worth? And, if so, can there ever be a system of accountability which is fair and immune to corruption, such are the pressures of  public humiliation?

Well, perhaps a clue comes from yet another announcement this week: following a visit from his US counterpart, Arne Duncan, Mr Gove has established his own ‘mini-Race To The Top’ fund of £110m for the lowest-performing schools.The Education Endowment Fund is available for ‘bold and innovative’ proposals which will raise attainment. Let’s gloss over the fact that true innovation, by definition, can’t guarantee success, and accentuate the positive: if we made schools accountable, not for their exam results, but for creating an innovative, engaging and vibrant learning culture, we’d almost certainly see  outcomes improve anyway.That’s what we’ve seen in the Learning Futures project, we’ve seen it in the RSA’s Opening Minds Academy, and I’m sure we’ll see it in the new Studio Schools.

But to do so would require a leap of faith on the part of the government, a removal of the blame culture, and a recognition that you might get a small minority of innovations that don’t produce improved results (though they may produce happier students). That would be a small price to pay for a revitalised schools sector. Tomorrow, I’m taking part in an Innovation Unit Think Tank to explore the possibility of Innovation Hubs for education. It could mark a turn in the road. There’s been so little radical innovation in schools in the past 10 years, because there’s been no incentive to try something different, only the threat of punitive action. If we could only shift the focus – away from performance targets to innovation – we might just be able to turn around those schools, and teachers and administrators, that have most needed support, but have failed to get it.

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