Sense and Accountability

Holding our primary schools to account for what matters most

Final report of the ASCL Primary Accountability Review

Many of the negative effects of assessment are in fact caused by the use of results in the accountability system rather than the assessment system itself.

So stated the Education Select Committee in its hard-hitting report on primary assessment last year. The committee identified a range of problems with the way in which primary pupils are assessed, including:
  • the rushed way in which the new assessments were implemented
  • an excessive focus on specific grammatical techniques in the assessment of writing
  • insufficient training and support for teachers in implementing assessment without levels
However, it was the way in which these assessments are then used to hold schools to account that particularly exercised the committee. The impact of this, according to witnesses providing evidence to the committee, includes:
  • a narrowing of the curriculum experienced by primary pupils
  • excessive pressure on both children and teachers
  • incentives to ‘game’ the system
The role of accountability in primary education in England, it seems, deserves further scrutiny.

ASCL’s Blueprint for a Self-Improving School System (Blueprint), our 2015 inquiry into the leadership of England’s education system, set out a vision for accountability in a self-improving system as follows:

Accountability is the obligation of an individual and organisation to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner. The highest form of accountability is the individual’s professional accountability for the quality of his or her own work and to the people who the profession serves. In a self-improving system, we believe that teachers and school leaders are agents of their own accountability.

The Blueprint outlined the role of government in accountability as “defining a slim, smart and stable public accountability framework with a small number of ambitious goals”. This framework should “incentivise schools, trusts and federations to implement policies and behaviours that contribute to a high-quality education for all”.

This report takes this definition of accountability as its starting point. It focuses mainly on what a “slim, smart and stable” (and fair and effective) public accountability framework might look like in a primary context, proposing a set of principles for such a framework. It also begins to explore how school leaders and teachers can be encouraged and supported to become “agents of their own accountability”.

We propose seven principles of an effective and fair accountability system, and hold the approach in England up against these principles.

An effective and fair accountability system should:
  1. start from a shared understanding of what outcomes we, as a society, want for our children and young people
  2. be based around a set of measures which incentivise schools to deliver on these outcomes, seeking ways to recognise and reward aspects which are important but difficult to measure, as well as those which are more easily quantifiable
  3. drive positive behaviour
  4. be based on information which is as accurate as possible, and not try to read too much into a small, unrepresentative amount of data
  5. be fair to schools in different circumstances and contexts, while recognising the importance of enabling every child to reach their potential
  6. lead to fair, proportionate, transparent and constructive consequences for schools which fall short of its desired outcomes, aligned with the best current evidence of what is most likely to lead to improvements
  7. be relentlessly self-critical, regularly evaluating impact and modifying as necessary

We make 15 recommendations. Some are for government, some for Ofsted, and some for school leaders and leadership organisations.

Implementing these recommendations would, we believe, take us closer to the fair and effective accountability system we need, and which our pupils, parents, teachers, and school leaders deserve.

Download report

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