Accountability tail wags education dog, says think tank.

Janet Downs's picture
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Centre Forum  , a liberal think tank, says “we have allowed the accountability ‘tail’ to wag the education ‘dog’”. It recognised that failure to meet performance targets has ‘potentially grave consequences’ on schools which result in perverse incentives: teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum, focussing on particular students such as those on the C/D borderline, and steering pupils towards particular subjects and qualifications. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) made similar warnings in its Economic Survey 2011 for England.

Centre Forum proposes the development of a web-based tool which it hopes will help parents choose schools and hold them to account, and allow parents to compare schools based on 19 “sub-indicators of school quality” which would replace the narrow newspaper league tables.

So far, so good, but Centre Forum toes the coalition line that “diversity, competition and choice” will drive up standards. The report doesn’t explain how diversity will work if all schools become academies as the government intends, or if a large number of these academies are in uniform academy chains. It believes that there is a need for a formal school accountability system but stops short at recognising a similar need to make academy chains accountable.

Centre Forum criticised the plethora of initiatives and micro-management activated by the last government, but fails to criticise the coalition for the massive upheaval, Gove’s “cultural revolution”, being foisted on the state education system now.

Having outlined the case for a better system of measuring schools than league tables, the paper perversely argues that the drop in PISA scores of Welsh students was directly caused by the abolition of league tables in Wales. This charge was refuted by FullFact.org and discussed on this site  .

The report acknowledges that there is disagreement about what constitutes a good school with local authorities and teacher unions stressing the importance of community, while the government view backed up by Ofsted is increasingly focussed on academic achievement. It quotes Mr Gove’s opposition to the Contextual Value Added (CVA) score which factors in such variables as socio-economic background, but does not mention the OECD view that the CVA, although imperfect, was an attempt to make a better judgement about how a school was doing than by merely looking at raw exam results.

Centre Forum welcomes the proportional approach to Ofsted inspection whereby schools judged “outstanding” will be inspected less frequently. However, OECD has warned about this as it could result in complacency.

Much of the paper sets out how a information "one-stop shop" for parents might look like, but warns that if the government is “minded” to set this up then it should consult widely about methodology and weighting of the sub-indicators. These include a value added score based on progress but not background (a grave omission), literacy and numeracy, student retention and exclusions, and exam results. To avoid controversy over the equivalence of vocational exams and GCSEs the report recommends that the former are graded in the same way as GCSEs and not just classed Pass, Merit or Distinction.

The report highlights the problems with the present system of measuring schools. Its idea for a web-based tool which includes a range of indicators to measure individual school performance is a good one. However, as the report pointed out, this would need to be discussed widely. Perhaps readers could suggest sub-indicators which could be included and which ones should be omitted.
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