New report warns of damaging accountability system for schools

A former Number 10 adviser and education chief at the RSA has warned that English schools are being damaged by common practices that are of little value to students.

The Ideal School Exhibition is an essay penned by Julian Astle, which reveals that schools are dicing with students' futures by scrambling to achieve the best league table results. 

This essay is a result of Astle's search for inspiring "mission-led" schools that are bucking a growing trend of schools hollowing out their teaching in a bid to meet the constantly shifting demands of the government's accountability system. 

These issues include: 

  • Narrowing the curriculum – particularly as pupils approachNew report warns of damaging accountability system for schools primary school SATs and GCSEs, when schools increasingly focus their time, energy and resources only on those subjects that will affect their league table position.
  • ‘Teaching-to-the-test’ – the practice whereby schools drill pupils in the tactics and techniques of exam taking, and focus their instruction on the specific demands of the test and the mark scheme. This not only turns young people off learning but which generates superficial, temporary and illusory educational gains.
  • Gaming – particularly the practices of manipulating the admissions and exclusions system to attract high-performing students and remove low-performing pupils. Also of entering large numbers of pupils for easy-to-obtain qualifications of little interest or value to the learner.

​Julian said: “Having worked at the centre of government, I know that the architects of England’s school accountability system are motivated by the best of intentions: to expose serious under-performance and raise standards. 

“But as the grip of that system has tightened over the last 25 years, and the catalogue of unintended consequences and perverse incentives has grown ever longer, it is hard to not to conclude that the costs now outweigh the benefits. We have reached that critical point where positive change becomes possible – where the risks of inaction are higher than the risks of reform.

“The RSA calls on everyone who recognises the importance of assessment and accountability, but who shares our concerns that the system as currently designed is damaging children’s education, to join the debate about how to reform that system for the better.”

To tackle these problems, Astle recommends:

  • Training teachers in the use and misuse of assessment to develop a deeper understanding within the profession of how teaching-to-the-test impedes, rather than supports, learning.  
  • Making explicit Ofsted’s emerging role as: the guardian of a broad and balanced curriculum; a counterbalance to the pressures of the DfE’s numbers-based accountability system; and the body mandated and expected to referee the ‘game’, looking not only at what schools achieve, but how they achieve it.
  • Withdrawing the ‘right’ for schools to act as their own admissions authority, and engaging with the RSA’s proposed Commission on School Admissions to ensure that the ‘low road to school improvement’ (manipulating the admissions system rather than improving teaching) is permanently closed.
  • Abolishing the Ofsted ‘outstanding’ category and handing the definition of excellence back to the profession. Ofsted should play a role more akin to the ‘Food Standards Agency’ than ‘restaurant critic’, focusing solely on identifying serious underperformance. As the government and the inspectorate step back, so teachers, coming together through bodies like researchED and the Chartered College of Teaching, should step up, ensuring that research, collaboration and evidence-led practice drive-up standards.
  • Creating a contestable ‘middle-tier’ to ensure that every school – particularly struggling or isolated schools without a high-performing local authority or Multi-Academy Trust behind them – is provided with timely and effective external challenge and support, with middle-tier bodies that cannot demonstrate an ability to maintain or raise standards replaced by ones that can.

The publication of The Ideal School Exhibition kick-starts the RSA’s work to unlock the potential of an overworked teaching profession, and to get our schools focused on the pivotal relationship at the heart of teaching: between the teacher, the pupil and the text – the real substance of education.

The essay will be launched today [16 November] in central London, with speakers including: David Laws, former schools minister, now executive chairman, Education Policy Institute; Daisy Christodoulou, director of education, No More Marking; Peter Hyman, co-founder and executive headteacher, School 21; Julian Astle, director of creative learning and development, RSA.

David Laws, former schools minister and now executive chairman, Education Policy Institute, said: “Anyone who cares about the quality of the education England’s school children are receiving would do well to consider the warnings contained in this thoughtful essay. Ensuring the accountability system creates the right incentives, and drives the right behaviours, is a key priority.”

Daisy Christodoulou, education director of No More Marking, added: “Exams are only an indirect measure of academic achievement, which means it is possible for them to be gamed and manipulated in such a way that they lose their original meaning. This report makes some vitally important points about why this is so damaging, and why the pursuit of exam results and accountability metrics therefore has to be informed by an understanding of the curriculum, and of what it means to master a subject.” 

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