What I’ve learned about accountability measures, school improvement and system improvement

Firstly, accountability measures have powerful effects on behaviour – some of which are intended, but some of which are not only unintended, but also damaging. They are never properly ‘stress tested’ for this. Floor targets, performance tables and OFSTED are all useful and powerful levers and I certainly wouldn’t want to do away with them (I’m old enough to remember the days before them and it makes me shudder!) but government could and should work with system leaders, from a wide variety of backgrounds, to predict what these unintended behaviours may be and so adjust measures accordingly.

Secondly, the reason why accountability measures are such powerful levers for changing behaviour is because of the huge stakes attached to them. Even when there are not huge stakes attached to measures we adopt what seem to have become known as ‘gaming behaviours’ due to our basic human nature. (I had a renewed sense of this when sitting exams for my MBA. Each exam was terminal and 3 hours long and I entered each exam room knowing exactly what I had to do to get a B grade – because I had decided to get a ‘with merit’- with no intention of expending effort over and above exactly what was necessary) So …. when the stakes are quite literally a headteacher’s job, of course behaviours appear that owe more to ‘saving our skin’, than improving quality.

Thirdly, the schools and students who suffer most from damaging behaviours which are indirectly the result of the accountability measures are those without strong and confident leadership. Furthermore, they are often, although not always, the schools which require the most improvement.

What are these behaviours which we don’t wish to encourage and are the unintended consequences of accountability measures? Well, this is where it gets complicated! Because (and I think here I am quoting President Santos -West Wing Season 7) ‘in this, as in all things, context is king’

To start with – there are some schools happily cruising along, doing a satisfactory job and not being motivated to do anything more: the schools that achieve over 75% 5+, and the same figure for 5+EM, and the same figure for EBacc. A school with this profile is failing with a substantial percentage of its students and we know immediately that its curriculum is turgid. (If DYCA can have 98% at 5+, then everyone can!) But there is no motivation to innovate, take risks and unleash greatness. Security is provided by accountability measures focused on adequacy and narrow (or, dare I say, politically-inspired) definition of greatness.

Then, at the other end of the market, so to speak, we have the schools struggling to hit the floor targets. Now here I’m on my own turf,and I know a lot about this! So indulge me, and let me move onto school improvement.

My experience has taught me that there are a number of stages in school improvement.

Stage One is about creating the conditions for improvement. At this stage, frankly, accountability measures are entirely irrelevant. When a school has below 50% of teachers at ‘satisfactory’ (indeed a critical mass of ‘supply / agency), student attendance below 85%, a vocal minority of criminal families calling the shots and drug dealing on site, any Headteacher who focuses on the government accountability measures will fail to effect turnaround. The agenda in schools at this stage is clear – create the conditions for school improvement, the conditions for teaching and learning to take place, a safe and secure environment, take on the bullies (and in my experience this included the LA) and exude confidence so that no-one in the community believes you will blow in the wind. When I did my first headship, if I had focused on the current accountability measures (or the ones which existed then, to be honest) in the first year the school wouldn’t have turned around. The key accountability measure at the time I was learning about turnaround headship at the coal face was 5+ and the ‘gaming’ was rife. For some reason I had the confidence to ignore and brought in real work-related qualifications, which had no performance table equivalency, but which did deliver the first generation for a while to get jobs.

Stage Two is about adequacy. Floor targets are useful here, but schools in challenging circumstances face their biggest challenge here, because if they get stuck on floor targets they don’t look at what will be required in the next stage. The social context schools are working in does not change and so it is extremely easy for a school which is improving rapidly to make one of the following 2 mistakes:
1. Continue using the strategies which got them above floor targets for too long. These strategies are context specific and once the floor targets are reached they need ‘pruning and challenging’, or they actually become limiting. We have seen this clearly with ‘early entry’ at DYCA. In a culture where no-one had ever passed an exam, proving it could be done a year early gave the students and families a fillip and the academy a bit of breathing space; now it is ridiculous because the student culture is different and we want to discourage ‘I’m happy with my C miss!’
2. Believe that all performance tables measures are important and do not have the confidence to know what is right for their school and contextualise. These are the ‘sad schools’ which are forcing every student to do ‘the EBACC’ (an imaginary qualification with limited / no currency) We know that if we forced this performance table measure in our context the following would happen:
– EBACC measure would rise
– 5+EM would fall
– attendance would fall

Stage Three is about the confidence to be great, and once again context is everything. The social context within which the school is called to serve remains unaltered, and the school is required to behave self-confidently in knowing and understanding its journey if it is going to be great. Sadly the existing accountability measures work dramatically against this happening. They drive headship behaviour about ‘preparing for OFSTED’: a desperation to be recognised for the mountains that have been climbed is almost impossible in the current framework, and so working to be recognised as ‘good’ (for heads at this stage that is heard as ‘safe’), becomes paramount (or even worse – a desperation to be ‘satisfactory’) I know and understand and empathise with my colleagues who behave like this, but using the OFSTED framework as a way of moving a school from adequate to good is never going to work. Indeed the OFSTED framework is now so limited and data-driven, focussing on it alone is always going to be detrimental to the improvement journey.

Stage Four is in some ways the most worrying in terms of the negative impact of accountability measures. This is where a school has become secure and ‘good’ and has a huge amount to offer in terms of system leadership and sharing across the system. How do the accountability measures mitigate against this happening? Massively. We see heads focussing on ‘preserving my outstanding judgment’, instead of focussing on innovation, system leadership and sharing (needless to say this takes their schools backwards), we see the ‘good to great’ never happening because the accountability measures discourage risk whereas we know greatness relies on self-confidence and risk, and, finally, we have no incentives in the system to make me as responsible for the students in the school down the road as I am for my own.

If I really have great moral purpose I want to be responsible for the students in the school down the road and I want a sophisticated system of accountability measures which makes this happen. I also want to be of service to my government helping them devise measures, avoid pitfalls, and put my experience to good use. Otherwise it doesn’t really feel worthwhile.


About rosmcm1962

30 years in teaching. Experienced Headteacher, Principal, Executive Principal, CEO of Academy Trust and NLE. Now working independently in the sector.
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10 Responses to What I’ve learned about accountability measures, school improvement and system improvement

  1. judeenright says:

    This is an excellent and reflective post, Ros, useful for any school leaders, whatever their context.
    The unintended outcome of the accountabilty measures brought in by the previous government was League Table “gaming” and decisions in some schools made for League Table scores rather than what is best for young people.
    The problem with the Coalition’s measures is they were almost all designed to show Labour’s failure, the ebacc is the most ludicrous examp,e of this, where humanities had to be reduced to Geog and History alone and Creative arts subjects and technology were all written off to grab headlines.
    Thankfully broadening of KS4 measures, abandoning “ebacc” measure as was, renewed emphasis on progress of different ability bands, and the Lib Dems’ focus on Ever 6 FSM is really starting to give a better picture of schools’ successes.
    The common feature of all these accountability failings seems to be that they we designed by politicians.
    It would be great if the Heads Round Table could consider accountability measures for the next twenty years, and if they could then remain unchanged, irrespective of who is sitting in the Secretary of State for Education’s seat.

  2. You speak a lot of sense. From my point of view as a teacher who specialises in careers education, I applaud your using employability as a driver for improvement. My worry is that, as you say, educational targets are set by political agenda. What is our duty to our pupils? To send them out able to speak Latin and quote the prime ministers of Britain in historical order, or to be able to hold down a job, contribute to their society and become a self actualised human being?

    5+EM is a crude tool at which to benchmark 16 year olds I put forward the idea of destinations data being better for pupils and for parents. OK I know I’m living in perfect world land here, but nothing happens unless people start saying it matters. So, a bit of shameless self promotion, I set out my case, albeit in a simplistic way here http://careersedforall.co.uk/?p=39. I’d love your opinion.

  3. Rodger Caseby says:

    Really thoughtful and considered piece, Thank you. Similar effects in health care, policing etc, where reporting of simplistic measures distorts effort to focus merely on those measures. Accountability needs to be sophisticated yet accessible and also authentic – around the attributes that will stand young people in good stead beyond school. We tend to shy away from qualitative measures but perhaps they should be part of the mix.

  4. Excellent, honest analysis, Ros. I’ve been asked by the Canadian Education Association to write a piece about the ‘fear factor’ which inhibits our desire to innovate. I’d like to quote some of this, if I may. These innovation blockers are in all school systems, and we need to coalesce to resist cack-handed attempts by government to make us accountable to them, rather than the students, parents and communities we serve.
    Keep up the fight!

  5. Many thanks for this, essential reading for those of us involved in the school improvement agenda, and reading to LA Officers too.

  6. We really enjoyed this post – would you mind if we re-posted it with attribution on our site for frontline bloggers http://www.guerillapolicy.org or contact us via Twitter @guerillapolicy – thanks in advance.

  7. What an inspiring post. Your words ring true. Focus on what’s right for your students and community: that’s where the true accountability lies. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  8. Pingback: …accountability « drmarkarobinson's blog

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