Is school accountability only for the benefit of lazy parents?

Fellow parents, I am delighted to announce that, thanks to a bold new initiative from the Department for Education (DfE), we are being empowered!

The DfE are now consulting (by which they mean giving notice of inevitable change) on a requirement for all schools to install a “widget” on their website that will mean that “key performance data” is displayed on the front page in traffic light form.

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/parents-to-be-given-key-information-on-schools-performance

All visitors will be able to judge at a glance whether the school is any good or not. No need for any context. Don’t bother reading any further. This will allow you to choose the best school for your child and, if you are unfortunate enough to find that your school is not “performing” as well as the local grammar, you can now demand to know why.    

Or perhaps I’ve misunderstood the consultation’s introduction from Schools Minister David Laws MP:dfe

It is only right that parents have a clear picture of how their child’s school is doing – and that they can see how neighbouring schools are also performing.

The information that will be published online by every school and college in future will support parents when choosing the best school or college for their child and help them challenge poor performance. Schools will no longer be able to hide away bad results.

This change returns power to parents and would allow them to identify excellent schools or ask the difficult questions about why their child’s school isn’t performing.”

Let us not dwell on the fact that schools are already required to provide their latest data on their websites, along with their latest Ofsted report, and that a whole raft of performance tables are easily accessible via the DfE website. As a parent, I obviously haven’t got the wit or intelligence to find my way past the front page of a website and so I must be presented with easily digestable “facts” so that I can make “choices”.

I am not quite clear who currently holds the “power” that Mr Laws is so keen to “return” to me but obviously when we sent our children to their current schools we were doing so blindly and on the basis of information that we could only take the school’s word for.

What utter nonsense.

Performance tables and associated measures are far too crude for my tastes as things stand, to reduce analysis of a school to a small number of traffic lights makes things even worse in my view.

If I read what is being proposed correctly there will be no mention of the context of results, nothing provided on the social make up of the school’s intake, nothing on extra-curricular offer, precious little on creative or vocational options, and absolutely no explanation of which “neighbouring schools” the school is being compared to, selective or otherwise.

And of course, no such comparisons will be presented on free school websites as their intake won’t be taking the tests that the measures are based on for several years. So if, as I suspect, this is yet another push to present competition as the great driver of school improvement, the playing field is once again not even.

I feel I must also point out that in a comparable, league table style system, only one school can be identified as “best”. Will Mr Laws be dealing personally with the appeals of those parents who fail to gain a place at these schools?

So, what evidence are we presented with to show that this is of educational benefit to students?  While Mr Laws is given three paragraphs, the only justification presented is restricted to one sentence:

“The highly respected OECD is clear that strong systems of accountability that give parents key information are a key characteristic of high-performing education jurisdictions.”

As I have pointed out, performance measures are already freely available. What this does not tell us is whether they are of educational benefit or not. It is my view that, in their current form and use, they are actually driving some schools to focus so hard on meeting these targets that it is to the detriment of some pupils.  

Inclusivity is already under threat. An excellent recent article by departing  primary school headteacher Nigel Utton on the reasons for his leaving, much of which centered on how these measures did not in any way reflect the experience of a significant number of the children at his school, illustrates this.

http://t.co/3wZnw0z7so

It also does not seem to have occurred to Laws and others of his ilk that this encourages “teaching to the test”,“gaming” of the system and other such practice that they purport to abhor. So why have they not spoken to teachers themselves about what will have most educational benefit and prevent this sort of activity?

headteachers manifestoThe recently published “election manifesto” of a group of practising head teachers states clearly where the current system falls down:

“It’s our view that the high-stakes nature of the current accountability frameworks has created a culture in schools that restricts the rate of improvement we need and deters high calibre school leaders from seeking the responsibility of Headship…Our system is more orientated to compliance than towards innovation; more preoccupied with short-term gains than deep-level improvement. This is extremely unhealthy”

We clearly need a means by which to hold schools accountable for the money given them to provide a good education to as many children as possible. No-one is arguing for there to be no measurement of performance but it must be done to aid schools in improving over the long term and for the benefit of all pupils.

I recommend the “Headteachers Roundtable” manifesto (http://headteachersroundtable.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/headteachers-roundtable-education-election-manifesto-2015.pdf) because, having identified the problem, it provides a very sensible way forward on this issue.

Their suggestion is that 

“In order to avoid the continuing over-simplification of data such that important details are lost, schools should be required to provide a standardised annual data commentary on their website accounting for their performance outcomes and trends over time. This will facilitate intelligent evaluation of the school’s performance against a range of criteria. The commentary should include a statement of action against areas of relative concern.”

I feel, as a parent, that I can cope with “intelligent evaluation”. Sadly the government have opted for further “over simplification” and they seem to believe that this is what parents want.

It’s high time we demanded that they consult the experts instead.

Stephen Mayo

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