It will not have escaped attention that the debate about accountability and the intended and unintended consequences of the impact it has on our education system has been lively and challenging over the past month or so.
At the outset I want to state that I have no doubt that any system funded by the taxpayer has to be scrutinised by a regulatory body. Working in a country like England, where leaders enjoy more autonomy than many of their peers around the world, an accountability system has to be in place to ensure that autonomous decisions are made in the best interests of children and the communities that schools serve.
Earlier today, I read the blog by Steve Munby on returning to first principles to deepen this debate and it reminded me of a session I ran with school leaders earlier this year. In the session, I made the point that there are three tests of whether accountability is truly making a positive contribution to improving the lives of young people.
The first test is whether a regulatory framework enables talent and creativity to be unleashed, or whether it stifles it, and in turn seeks to determine the approach schools take in order to create the appearance of success in the eyes of the regulator. I often hear school leaders state that they are accountable to OFSTED. This is wrong. Decisions taken to satisfy the regulator in order to appear to achieve more green ticks than red crosses is short term and misses the whole point about what a great education actually is. (Becky Allen’s recent thoughts on what makes a great education and how hard it is to determine the answer through a single performance grade is brilliant on this.)
This is why the role of governance is so critical to this debate. The best boards challenge and support the decision that leaders take and hold them to account for it. To create the illusion that the role of governance is benign in this respect is missing the point on a grand scale. The true accountability in the system is between leaders and their governors and trustees and cannot be under-estimated.
If we believe that accountability is inherently important across our system, then how does it unleash talent and creativity? It does so because the regulatory framework should create the parameters in which leaders and teachers make great decisions about how outcomes for children are improved. This is partly about values and behaviours as well as the decisions about the quality of what trusts and schools plan and then deliver. If I paraphrase for a moment, the inspectorate should be focused upon this challenge for the school where the leaders say “this is what we do and why we do it, come and tell us how well you think we achieve our goals and vision.” And by the way, help us to codify what we do so that others might learn from us.
If we position the role of regulation in this way, then leaders have the space and capacity to work out the best approaches for the children that they educate, and in this “sweet spot” is the moment where quality can be achieved and more importantly, observed by others. If the plan is delivering great outcomes for children, is delivered by a well resourced and well developed staff, and it is affordable and sustainable, this becomes a great conversation and not a defensive one.
The second test for me is built around the concept of unintended consequence. If a simple summary of our assessment system says that for 30% of the schools in the country to improve, 30% have to fail, then every year a third of our leaders are looking to see whether their roles are safe and secure. Elsewhere I have written about school improvement taking time, yet the sickening fear and anxiety of a job being under threat as a set of KS2, KS4 or post 16 results being published in the year before an inspection is going to take place, does nothing to build medium to long term strategy. This is not a get out of jail free card. My point is that the right strategy sometimes becomes embedded before the outcomes improve and in the hinterland between the two is where the anxiety and optimism is evident.
Now we know that OFSTED does not hire or fire people. The outcomes of inspection however do sometimes create the platform for this debate at board and leadership level. It is here we need governors to be brave and hold their nerve. If the strategy is working, and the lag between the plan being embedded and the outcomes catching up is still work in progress, back the leaders and their teams and let them know that they have the time to finish the job. Too many leaders become dis-illusioned and leave their roles before the task in hand is done and the reality is that we have to make the leadership of schools feel enjoyable, successful and more importantly, do-able, if the middle leaders of today are going to become the school and trust leaders of tomorrow.
The third test is connected to how we sustain our education system for the next ten to twenty years. Accountability is one of the solutions and not a barrier to be overcome. Leaders have three resources at their disposal that operate across sectors, phases and contexts. These three resources are money, time and the workforce. Re-designing a curriculum is not a quick fix. It is not a cheap option either and it is not deliverable as a change pathway in a year. The decision last week by OFSTED to give schools another year to think about this is welcome, but it is still not the right way to look at it.
Of the three resources I just mentioned, let me take each one in turn.
Finance is largely out of the control of leaders in terms of the quantum that a school receives. I do agree with the view that we should take a fresh look at how we resource our schools and how we make our own models of education affordable. I think it is also true to say, that there are very few schools that I have visited in the last two years who have not worked hard to find the efficiencies that will make for a more sustainable model. Cutting the cost of the curriculum is important and benchmarking against other schools in similar contexts is helpful, but there is a point at which a school has to be a safe place to teach and learn and we are at the point in many cases where the financial strategy has done as much as it can.
I spoke about time, and believe firmly that leaders have a role in determining how they want staff to allocate their time. We can dress this up in the workload debate, but fundamentally it is about how we enable teachers to be in the best position possible to teach as well as they can. Thinking about the role of curriculum design and when this work takes place, how we assess that curriculum and how we teach it and how affordable it is, are the heart and soul of leadership decision making. They are also the right questions for an inspector to ask. I have never met a leader who is unwilling to be accountable for these decisions, but if the model becomes so complex because the impression of the sector is that the regulator has a model it believes in more than that of the school, then we have a problem.
Finally, our greatest resource is the one that we are in danger of losing. The talent that makes up our staff teams. Teachers, leaders and support staff working with and accountable to a strong and values driven governing body. The classroom is a place of innovation incubation on a daily basis. Teachers try out new ideas and new ways to help children understand and make progress. If accountability does not recognise the creativity of pedagogical practice, then the risk is that we revert to the closest version of what will be acceptable. The school six months away from an inspection starts to drive the innovation through the lens of the regulatory model whilst the school six months after the inspection, assuming it went well, drives innovation around learning. A blunt and probably limited comparison but I do not have to think too long to think of examples I have seen in the last year of both.
So, there we are. On the horns of a dilemma. A dilemma that the system and OFSTED both recognise. We have a new government that will support the work of OFSTED and was bold and powerful in backing it during the election campaign. But we are in danger of creating a void between those that teach and lead and those that inspect. It does not have to be that way and that is why I welcome the debate about how we make the inspection model better for parents, children, communities and schools. If not now, then when?