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More nuanced school data is key to rebuilding public trust

This week, the Education Policy Institute published a new, online benchmarking tool that allows users to compare the performance of school groups (local authorities, multi academy trusts, diocese) across a range of attainment, progress, and inclusion measures (such as the extent to which school intakes are representative of their local communities in terms of FSM and SEND and the rates of temporary exclusions and managed moves). In the spring, we will be updating the tool to include financial health and workforce measures.

When we started this work a few years ago, our aim was to move away from the attainment-based comparisons of LAs and MATs that we, along with the Department for Education and the Sutton Trust, had published in the past. All of those studies reached similar conclusions; there was little difference in the performance of MATs and LAs, with more variation within each of those groups than between them.

We wanted to move the debate forward from ‘which governance structure is better?’ to ‘what makes an effective school group and how can we disseminate best practice across the system?’. Improving our understanding of the features of high-performing school groups is still very much our aim but, as we developed the tool, the policy debate also shifted in a way that made our tool even more important.

The issue of accountability has become increasingly prominent in the education discourse. Back in 2016, we highlighted the implicit bias in Ofsted judgements against disadvantaged schools. The prevalence of off-rolling and managed moves started to generate noise, causing the sector to question whether we could really trust the headline figures published by Ofsted and the DfE. More recently, the sad death of headteacher, Ruth Perry and commitments from the Labour Party to introduce a ‘scorecard’ and to inspect MATs have also led us to think more empirically about how we measure school performance.

To be clear, we are not suggesting that our tool should be used for accountability purposes. But, as well as giving school leaders the opportunity to benchmark themselves against similar groups and to look at their own strengths and weaknesses, the tool should inspire policymakers to think more holistically about how schools are judged.

The current system no longer seems fit for purpose

Neither are we suggesting that our tool is perfect; the data is lagged because it takes a long time for researchers to access it (although the DfE would be able to do this in much closer to real-time). The cancellation of exams during the pandemic has also meant that our data isn’t as current as we would like it to be. Nevertheless, as long as we can secure the resources needed and the sector find it helpful, we plan to update the tool as we get newer data.

We also know that there are concerns about comparing local authorities with MATs, as both groups tend to operate very differently. But, ultimately, the LA and the MAT are the accountable bodies and have the powers to change school practices and policies if they deem it necessary, so there is a rationale for including both groupings in our tool.

The job of school leaders is increasingly challenging. The past few years have seen rises in child poverty rates, mental ill health and absence rates. These challenges are not the fault of teachers and school leaders, rather the result of a myriad of policy decisions by the government, the Covid pandemic and perhaps wider societal shifts in attitudes. Nevertheless, by not looking at the wider context that school groups are facing, we risk drawing very narrow conclusions in attempting to identify success.

We don’t argue that challenging cohorts should be ‘an excuse’ for poor performance. We know that many schools and groups are delivering very positive outcomes for their pupils despite serving very disadvantaged communities. We want to highlight those groups, understand how they are achieving positive outcomes in challenging circumstances and help to spread that knowledge across the system. Similarly, we should also understand whether some school groups are achieving high academic performance at the cost of low inclusion.

Finding a balanced and fair accountability system is fraught with challenges and perceived trade-offs, but the current system no longer seems fit for purpose. As we head closer towards a general election, all parties should consider how better use of data and more nuanced reporting can help to rebuild the system in a way that also rebuilds parental trust and public confidence.

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