“The Ideal School Exhibition tells two stories: one depressing, one highly inspiring.”
So begins a timely essay by Julian Astle, director of education at the RSA, exploring the way in which schools are responding to the demands of the current accountability system, and proposing a series of reforms.
The depressing story is, in Astle’s words, “about the many distortions to professional priorities and practices that England’s punitive school accountability system has created … and the widespread problem of teaching-to-the-test”.
These practices, argues Astle, “may help a school get its performance numbers in the right place, but they represent a betrayal of education’s progressive promise, leave pupils fundamentally unprepared for the challenges of further study and work and risk putting them off learning for the rest of their lives”.
The inspiring story is provided by the twelve schools Astle writes about in the essay – schools that “simply refuse to play this time-consuming and morale-sapping game of education-by-numbers”. These schools “all have one key thing in common: they are all driven by a sense of mission that goes well beyond the narrow demands of the accountability system”.
This is a hugely important discussion, and one in which ASCL is also extremely interested. Our current review of primary accountability, which will publish its final report shortly, is considering some of the same questions through a primary-specific lens. The ASCL-led Ethical Leadership Commission is exploring what principled leadership of our schools looks like. And some of the issues raised in the RSA report, including the practice of ‘off-rolling’ challenging pupils, or those with complex needs, are ones which are of great concern to our members.
Gamers or missionaries?
Eschewing the current (tiresome) trend to divide teachers and school leaders into ‘traditionals’ and ‘progressives’, Astle instead places the fault line in a different place. He describes two groups of school leaders: ‘gamers’ (leaders whose decisions are overwhelmingly shaped by the government’s demands) and ‘missionaries’ (those whose decisions are shaped by their own sense of mission).
These stereotypes enable Astle both to point up the damaging practices happening in some schools (cheating, over-marking of coursework, off-rolling), and to showcase the ways in which some leaders use their sense of mission to create schools which are very different from the norm.
More interesting though, in my opinion, are his thoughts on the impact of the current accountability system on the vast majority of heads, who are, in his words, “neither gamers nor missionaries but pragmatists, doing the best they can for their pupils in the circumstances”.
Personally, I would dispute the implication that most school leaders aren’t driven by a strong sense of purpose. All school leaders (and all teachers), in my experience, recognise that "there are lots of things a good exam grade doesn’t tell us about the student who achieved it”, know that “exam success tells us little about a student’s ability to put their education to use”, and care more about whether their pupils will “go out into society determined to help others, to stand up to injustice and make a positive difference” than whether they “have been successfully coached in the techniques of answering an 8-mark or 16-mark question” (all characteristics, in Astle’s view, of ‘missionary’ leaders).
Do the right thing for your pupils
For me, the most interesting question is how we have ended up with a system which school leaders and teachers feel actively dis-incentivises them from focusing on what they believe matters most – and what we can do to change that.
Astle has some interesting suggestions which include:
producing tests which are harder to teach to
encouraging Ofsted to look not only at what schools achieve, but how they achieve it
allocating GCSE results to all secondary schools attended by a pupil, in proportion to the length of time they spent there
ensuring the ‘middle tier’ of MATs, local authorities and others are held properly accountable for the schools they oversee
“returning the definition of educational excellence to the profession” by abolishing the Ofsted ‘outstanding’ category
These changes are not straightforward, and care must be taken to ensure they don’t solve one problem by creating another. One of the key recommendations of ASCL’s review of primary accountability is likely to be around the need to monitor both the positive and negative impact of our current approach, and to properly test the likely consequences, both intended and unintended, of any changes.
Overall, though, this is a timely contribution to an important debate. We cannot continue with a situation in which ill-thought-out administrative targets actively discourage school leaders from doing the right thing for their pupils. That is a mission we must all get behind.
If you would like to find out more about ASCL's review of primary accountability, read Julie's article Sense and accountability in August's Leader magazine.