HeadsRoundtable Accountability Policy Proposals

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 leads 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.

HeadsRoundtable Resources Policy Proposals

On the need for a 10-year plan for education that supports sustainable funding for per pupil resourcing, ICT infrastructure, capital funding, training, and last but not least, SEND provision and multi-agency input

Emerging from the Heads Roundtable ‘listening sessions’, came a sense of clarity;  Schools understand their purpose for children; they understand their communities and their needs; they understand what is expected of them; but what they don’t understand is how they are to meet this demand with the resources available to them are so sparse, unequal, and not fit for purpose.

As we re-focused our thoughts to the landscape beyond Covid, we picked up the conversations we had paused on as we responded to the priorities of the pandemic.  This included key themes of funding, ICT infrastructure, capital funding, training, and last but not least, SEND provision and multi-agency input.

We heard experienced peers in the listening session talk about the need for sustainable funding to be lifted away from language of temporary streams such as “catch up”, or branded with ‘ring-fenced’ political badges, but instead, be informed by a 10-year plan for education.  If we have learnt anything in the last 18 months, it is that enrichment is not a bolt-on to our schools, it is an integral and essential part of educational provision, so we should be resourced with long term funding to reflect that fact.

Disparity in resources available to support children and their families, particularly for those with SEND, in different local authorities features strongly in the debate as too often we pick up the broken pieces of a situation in crisis where local resource is lacking or inappropriate to meet needs.  It becomes our job to find the solution, even if it means depleting our school resources or spending disproportionate amounts of time, to support the services that cannot cope or deliver. 

For example, in recent years there has been a move to operate NHS healthcare support to children and young people via a delegated system of delivery in schools.  This has seen an increase of support services being undertaken by school staff, and funded by education such as speech and language therapy, physiotherapy, mental health services, and clinical care delivery.  This has happened in mainstream schools for many years, but is now also happening in special schools across the country. This is only one part of a postcode lottery list of inequality; regional variabilities of High Needs funding, social care capacity, and availability of quality healthcare, perpetuates a downward spiral of deprivation and poverty as schools continue to do more with less.

If we are accountable for the outcomes of a child’s education, health, wellbeing and lived experiences, then we should be properly supported to do so.  Our government needs to invest in the services, capital and infrastructure to match what it wants us to manage and deliver.  We have stepped up, and we need government to do the same.

We now have a shining spotlight on the role that our schools take on as society’s safe spaces, multiagency/ SEND community resource hubs, and safeguarding hives of support; all in addition to our core purpose of educating our next generation.  We step up, we respond, and we adapt to all that is asked of us because it’s the right thing to do, and the vast majority of us chose this profession because we wanted to make a difference.  We ask that we are acknowledged for what we do, given the tools and resources to do it effectively, and that we are trusted to manage and implement these to meet the needs of our communities.

HeadsRoundtable Assessment Policy Proposals

by Ros McMullen

Our ‘listening exercise’ conducted in the Spring of 2021 demonstrated three themes.

Overwhelming headteachers pointed to the problem of assessment being so inextricably bound up with the accountability of schools, the whole purpose of assessment had been lost.  The use of assessments to principally judge teachers and schools has meant that assessment is no longer used as a tool for teachers to improve the progress of students, but rather as a justification of teacher and school performance.  This means that the curriculum becomes distorted and the student experience limited, as we are forced to concentrate on what is measured.

We believe it is necessary to remove the high stakes nature of primary assessment and that this is unreliable in any event as a result of the small numbers involved in many schools; however, we also see that there is a need to monitor standards over time and the impact of policy.  Our proposal, therefore, to conduct testing of primary school pupils only for the purpose of sampling will enable us to gain an understanding of national standards, trends over time and the impact of policy whilst removing the distortions and damage currently caused to the experience of pupils in the later Key Stage 2 years.  We also propose the implementation of all the recommendations from the all-party parliamentary report on oracy specifically designed to cease neglecting the fundamentally important development of oracy, which we know is absolutely vital not only for future examination success, but also for building confidence and skills necessary for young people to succeed as adults.

We heard from headteachers that teachers have become deskilled in designing assessments for the purpose of determining the efficacy and effectiveness of their teaching, and determining what students need.  We believe that assessment is an extremely important skill that has been neglected in ITT as the system has become reliant on national testing.  Our recommendations to ensure this is taught in ITT, that there is a post graduate qualification in assessment on offer to teachers, and that all schools should have at least one ‘chartered assessor’ on the staff by 2025 are designed to address this deficit in teacher skills.

Understandably headteachers were keen to discuss the problems with GCSE and A-level in 2020 and 2021.  Many heads have been concerned for sometime about the lack of set criteria for grades awarded and the consequent inability to really judge whether standards are rising or falling.  The use of the ‘algorithm’ in 2020 highlighted how using statistical tools to allocate grades can produce great unfairness and distortions, and when this became clear it was abandoned.  This should have been foreseen, as for too long the lack of a set criteria for each grade has been of disabling for teachers, students and schools.  The use of Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) in 2020 and Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) in 2021 have highlighted the fundamental problem: we do not actually know what criteria determines a grade as it depends on where boundaries are set annually.  Students and parents in having this system explained to them find it extraordinary, and schools in trying desperately to submit the right CAGs do not have the necessary criteria to assist.  This is why we are clear that that a set of criteria for each grade in each subject needs to be established at GCSE and A-level: not only which this communicate a clear understanding of standards, but it will also mean we can genuinely see where standards are rising or falling.

Our further recommendations of building on our learning over the pandemic to make use of online assessments throughout a course, and of placing the UCAS process after the awarding of grades are designed to remove the pressure and inefficiencies inherent in our current system.  In rebuilding and reshaping the future we want assessment to support education, and put young people first, rather than what we currently have which is a system driven by the pressure points of assessment which is detrimental to improving standards, delivering quality education and is damaging to our young people.

Headteachers’ Roundtable: An Alternative White Paper

With thanks to all those who engaged with our Listening Events and contributed powerful thinking to this White Paper. We hope you recognise your priorities and your thoughts, we look forward to discussing it with those who have the ability to take it forward.

A month before the whirlwind of the pandemic, The Headteachers’ Roundtable requested a pause to Ofsted. Lockdown and Covid restrictions then induced a pause in face-to-face inspections which lifted the additional pressure from Headteachers at a time when hosting an inspection would have been an unsafe distraction. The pause lasted much longer than we anticipated. Yet Heads ‘stepped up’ even without the pressure of punitive accountability. Professional moral purpose had the space to galvanise a shared motivation in a national time of need.

However, in that pause, a space to think needed to be forged for leaders to learn the lessons from the pandemic. With this in mind, in the midst of the January to March 2021 lockdown, The Headteacher’s Roundtable conducted three listening exercises on specific topics: Accountability, Resources and Assessment. More than 150 school leaders from across the country, from different phases and different backgrounds, signed up. There were representatives from maintained schools, MATS, mainstream, Special and Alternative Education, from Early Years through to post-16. It was a collective voice of the sector.

The ideas heard at those events are represented in our White Paper as suggested policy. We are calling for a reform of Ofsted so that it can contribute constructively to the rebuilding process, for a longer-term investment of additional funding that schools can spend to meet the recovery needs of all children and changes to assessment practices in the light of lessons learned in 2020 and 2021.

If the Government is serious in its intention to ‘Build Back Better’, it needs to listen to us, the architects and the builders. Our evidence base is our lived experience and the practical wisdom of working alongside the diverse communities we serve. In this exceptional period in our history, we have more than earned the right to be heard. Moreover, our students and communities deserve a considered, constructive response to these ideas from the chalk face.

This paper calls for a grown-up conversation; a chance to reach agreement on the core approaches necessary to secure our children’s future success and wellbeing, alongside a long-term commitment to how those approaches can be implemented and resourced. Our system and our young people have experienced too much fragmentation and fracture. We have the experience and expertise to know how to craft an ambitious and healthy future for education in this country.

It is time to talk.

Hope and Agency: Consider Nothing Impossible

I wrote this piece for SchoolsWeek on behalf of HTRT in December 2019: Great Expectations or Bleak House?. I had just begun my maternity leave and had managed to squeeze in a moment of reflection amongst tying up loose ends and preparing for baby number three.

At the time, as I mused over the language that characterised education that year and penned my professional hopes and wishes for the new one, I couldn’t have imagined that we were on the precipice of a global pandemic. I had no idea of the scale of the challenges that we were all about to face, nor the fact that I would be returning to lead a school in lockdown in April 2020.  

Continue reading