Accountability is an essential aspect of school leadership. No head teacher would dispute the need for robust scrutiny of the spending of public funds. All heads recognise their responsibility for the educational standards achieved in their schools.
However, the listening exercise conducted by the Heads Roundtable unequivocally exposed how warped and damaging educational accountability mechanisms have become. In attempting to raise standards, a pervasive, accountability culture is damaging the very thing that it seeks to improve.
Now is the time to address the unhealthy accountability dynamic in education.
Head teachers have never felt so accountable for the education and wellbeing of their young people and families, despite the fact that the routine mechanisms for judging and comparing schools have been put on hold. School leaders cited the extreme lengths of civic duty they have willingly demonstrated during the pandemic that will go unrecognised by routine school performance measures. Great school leaders aren’t motivated by fear and fortune, they do the right thing for their communities.
The education accountability system needs reframing.
Leading a large secondary academy in a northern coastal town does not pose the same challenges of a heading up a small, rural Local Authority primary in the South East or an inner-city special school or Pupil Referral Unit. However, head teachers share a common experience of the relentless pressure of accountability from many sources (Ofsted, the Department for Education, their Regional Schools Commissioner, Local Authority, multi-academy trust, Local Governing Body, league tables) and the divisive side effects of pitting schools against each other.
Adding additional layers of scrutiny has created a bloated and confusing accountability landscape. A full review is required to rationalise accountability in education and to arrive at a more coherent and effective model.
Intelligent accountability needs to be contextualised.
Covid-19 has called into sharp focus the differences in school communities and the impact of relative disadvantage. Efforts to homogenise school accountability by judging very different educational institutions with a standard inspection framework needs addressing.
All methods of accountability need to appreciate and be understanding of the particular circumstances of a school.
Ofsted gradings need to be removed.
A month before the first lockdown in March 2020, the Heads Roundtable called for a pause to Ofsted because of the damage being caused by the cliff-edge accountability that this institution has come to represent. A year on, the head teachers that came together gave a rallying cry for the need for a more intelligent accountability model.
Ofsted’s tag line ‘raising standards, improving lives’ has become less likely the more the inspectorate has taken a crude subjective snapshot of a school’s standards and issue a lasting badge of honour or shame; a label that either unlocks doors to financial incentives or alternatively lead
s to a vicious, inevitable spiral of funding and retention challenges.
The Head teachers’ Roundtable white paper policy suggestion to remove Ofsted grading recognises that it is the inspection commentary, not the grade, that has the formative power to drive school improvement by recognising excellence and identifying areas requiring improvement and support. All schools will have pockets of brilliance and aspects that are not so strong. This nuance becomes lost when all that is seen or published is a category.
Safeguarding is too important to leave to Ofsted inspections – it needs regular specialist audits.
At present, an Ofsted inspection team attempts to cover all aspects of school safeguarding within a routine inspection, in addition to conducting deep dives into a number of curriculum areas. Their resource and expertise are not sufficient to be able to ensure that children are effectively safeguarded, especially if schools are left without inspections for many years.
Investment in a specialist safeguarding service would ensure a consistency of high-quality reviews. As with annual financial audits, the process would provide leaders with a forensic, independent analysis of safeguarding processes and practices and would advise on next steps.
Create a strategy for Head teacher recruitment and retention.
Being a head teacher may be amongst the most gratifying and rewarding of careers, but the fuzzy warm glow generated from serving a school community is not sufficient to support school leaders through the challenges.
The pressures of leading a school with the associated financial, personnel and safeguarding pressures, to name a few, pose significant stresses on school leaders. In order to have the confidence, skills and resilience to lead, head teachers need proper training and support. Informal networks and support groups are beneficial but all head teachers must have access to specialist supervision and mentoring to ensure their efficacy, as well as to address recruitment and retention.
Leading through a crisis has tested school leaders in unimaginable ways. These exceptional circumstances have taken our resourcefulness, agility and compassion to new heights. There is now an imperative to chart a better path as we head out of a global pandemic. A fresh opportunity to ensure that accountability systems are fit for purpose, humane and impactful. A prospect to ensure that future accountability systems support educational standards and school improvement, not hinder or quash them.
Let’s not waste this chance to detoxify the accountability agenda.