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Performance data and inspection need urgent reform

Every school team wants to be held accountable. In fact, we actively welcome it. But our accountability framework is actively stifling us in our efforts to support school improvement, and that surely shouldn’t be the case.

What we want are accountability measures that empower schools to work collectively to impact positively on all pupils’ broad learning outcomes.

And what we need is an accountability system that recognises that the best performance comes from leaders, teachers and pupils who are well, respected and thriving.

What we have instead is a regime with only one defender: the Secretary of State for Education, who can use the system to disingenuously claim that so many more schools are ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ than under their predecessor.

The consensus everywhere else is that single-phrase Ofsted judgments are not fit-for-purpose. There is also growing consensus that the zero-sum approach to school performance at key stages 4 and 5 is at best misleading, and at worst downright damaging.

Pitting school against school for results and accolades disincentivises inclusive school leadership. And amid recruitment and retention challenges that this policy is at least in part responsible for, it is only fanning the flames of crisis.

Deliver us from deliverology

The current climate is defined by valuing only what we can measure easily. Last week’s key stage 2 SATs, for example, are designed primarily to hold schools accountable, not to support students’ learning.

Worse, this performance data-driven approach has resulted in successive waves of perverse incentives. Progress 8 was a well-intentioned attempt to move away from policies that gamed the system in favour of some young people and some grades. But it doesn’t acknowledge context and, even more importantly, it is itself entirely gameable.

Successive governments have sought to boil the entirety of school performance down to single measures. This has caused untold damage. 

Boiling performance down to single measures has caused untold damage

So the next government must urgently and thoughtfully develop a set of metrics that can effectively tell the whole story of a school. A fit accountability system must capture the impact of schools and their staff teams on the learning and life chances of all students in an equitable and inclusive way.

Such a system must be based on the rich data schools already collect, and account for the stories every leader can tell about what lies behind the numbers. It must look beyond test results to important factors like exactly who attends a school, how long they are there, whether they effectively make it through their full school career and where they are years down the line.

And as to results, these must account for how their education impacts upon them as citizens and human beings: their social, personal, emotional and academic development.

From inspection to improvement

In recent months, Ofsted has successfully achieved the unimaginable: it has unified the profession. And that unity is in the certain knowledge that the current system of inspection is not fit for purpose. In fact, it runs counter to school improvement.

To replace it, we need a genuinely independent body that works with schools and trusts to support and improve peer- and self-evaluation.

What drives school improvement is developmental critique, not cut-and-paste judgments in standardised rubrics. What doesn’t is throwing a school community into turmoil for a limiting judgment that can be altered in a few weeks.

Safety is of course paramount, as is inclusion. Separate annual reviews will be ample to check safeguarding and school roll activity.

The only argument left in the tank to defend the current system boils down to informing parents. There are ways of making descriptive inspection reports accessible to all. And besides, a dashboard encapsulating richer performance data will do most of that work – and do it better.

For too long, we have been operating under systems of flawed performance measures and inspection that have rewarded those who played and won the zero-sum game. It’s had disastrous results for inclusion, curriculum, staffing and mental health.

The next government can change the accountability landscape for good. And all it will take is a little more faith in schools and their communities.

Read the Headteachers’ Roundtable manifesto, Making it Possible here

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