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Accountability: Labour’s proposals are just more of the same

Last month, the UN issued a global alert over teacher shortages. We are apparently in need of 44 million teachers by 2030, and we’re at dire risk of missing that target. England is practically a case study in the problem, with a report from the NFER this month warning that teachers need to be compensated for lack of certain flexibilities, like working from home, to slow the record number of them leaving the profession.

The impact on children is real. A report this month showed children in the western world are becoming increasingly unhappy and are “really struggling”. Parents and families also keep raising the alarm about the same issue.

What is going on? As an educational psychologist who has spent a decade working in schools, pupil referral units and child prisons, following children from the moment they enter schools to when they leave, a big part of my answer is: culture. More specifically, a culture of hyper-surveillance.

First off, there are deep contradictions in the way schools are held to account. They are required to ensure ‘standards’ and ‘excellence’, measured by test results. At the same time, Ofsted requires that schools teach a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum – which promotes the opposite of the exam result focus.

It is a tough task to do both, without a hyper-intensive work environment. Many teachers live inside this paradox, in constant fear of poor results and Ofsted inspections. This creates an internalised experience of hyper-surveillance.

Schools are also increasingly held accountable for attendance. This has led to the implementation of punitive policies that exacerbate tensions between schools and families. Well-meaning teachers are effectively coerced into themselves coercing rather than supporting families, passing the culture of hyper-surveillance onto them. Parents face the threat of fines, prosecution and even criminalisation.

The impact can be devastating. They are told to drag their kids out of bed regardless of how distressed they are, to make home uncomfortable to encourage them into school, even if they find school impossibly stressful.

We must move away from hyper-surveillance

It clearly isn’t working. And Labour’s answer? More surveillance, with the creation of a unique identification number to link school and health records.

Meanwhile, children are subjected to constant monitoring and scrutiny through attainment tracking, behaviour charts and attendance profiles, none of which they have consented to. They are positioned as academic commodities, with success and attendance prioritised above all else, regardless of the toll on their mental health.

We must move away from hyper-surveillance measures that force teachers to act in ways that compromise their values. We need more humane school evaluation approaches. Labour has rightly identified the problem of basing school accountability on poor data, but their proposed scorecard approach merely brings in more surveillance. This will not achieve the desired aims.

Human beings are not data. We need evaluation approaches built on trust and collaboration.

Nobody knows schools better than school communities themselves. Hence schools, in collaboration with children, young people, and families, should decide what constitutes educational success.

In other nations, accountability involves self-evaluation in partnership with other schools, who cooperate rather than compete with one another.

In Estonia, for example, there is no separate, external inspectorate. School evaluation is ‘flexible’.  Schools are trusted and a collaborative rather than judgemental approach is the norm. As one official puts it: “if there is a problem… everybody helps.”

Evaluation in Norway is designed in dialogue with schools. They focus on specific themes, questions or criteria that are tailored to the specific educational context. Expert panels of officials, educators and students co-construct evaluation together. Unlike in England, the aim is not to ‘investigate compliance’ but to identify ‘key challenges and good practice’ as a team.

In both cases school evaluation is about support and collaboration, not surveillance and judgment.

More supportive approaches are not a pipe dream; they are business-as-usual in many places. If we fail to follow suit, schooling will not be responsive to the diverse students that walk through the door and teachers, parents and young people will continue to suffer through the contradictions. 

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