Accountability measures can distort what is taught, writes school head in Wellcome report

Janet Downs's picture
(Words in brackets are the author’s own)

Concentrating on a “limited range of accountability measures skews what is taught” wrote Joan Sjøvoll, Head of Framellgate School, Durham*.

Joan Sjøvoll concentrated particularly on science education but the points apply more widely. Some aspects of science (and all subjects by extension) are hard to measure, she said. These include: fostering curiosity, independence and innovation through exploratory learning and developing research and analytical skills.

An emphasis on teaching facts and reaching government targets neglects the role of education in enriching and deepening pupils’ learning. Sjøvoll criticises league tables for focussing on a narrow range of statistics which give little information about the quality of education in a school.

Accountability through a limited range of easily measured targets has negative effects:

1 It encourages teaching to the test (the OECD voiced this concern in 2011).

2 Schools judged successful in hitting these “limited and limiting targets” become more popular and expand while those less successful will be forced to conform to the same narrow focus on targets. This is at the expense of the “broader aspects of learning”.

Sjøvoll is concerned that EBacc’s concentration of academic subjects will push pupils away from other subjects and more practical qualifications. In turn, this is likely to encourage more pupils to take academic degrees at university when apprenticeships and practical degrees may be a better option. (This is likely to be worsened by the Government’s promotion of Oxbridge and Russell Group universities as the only places of higher education worth attending).

The best accountability measures should be sophisticated enough to drive curriculum development and improvement in learning. A narrow range of accountability targets does the opposite – it restricts education to what can easily be measured.

Note: This is the second in a series of summaries of essays which appear in the Wellcome report, “Effects from Accountabilities”.   A summary of the report's conclusions is here.


*The Wellcome Trust added this postscript to Sjøvoll's essay: “This article was drafted by Joan Sjøvoll, who sadly died before its publication; the final revisions were made by Martin Post [Head, Watford Grammar School for Boys]. Joan Sjøvoll made outstanding contributions to science education, not only as Headteacher of Framwellgate School in Durham, a science specialist school and home of the Science Learning Centre North East, but also as an adviser to government, the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust. She was a visionary with her feet firmly on the ground, and she is a great loss to science education.”

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.