Your defence of the status quo seems to be straight out the TINA handbook, so following on from your suggestion I’m very happy to move our conversation on to some alternatives.
This is a pretty basic, but fairly useful visual summary of what’s wrong with government’s relationship with education:
As I’ve outlined elsewhere, this causes some fundamentally corrosive damage. To change this won’t involve tinkering – what we need is a complete rethink on what schools are for and how we treat them.
Firstly, we need to decide what’s important to account for in the first place. At the moment this appears to be almost entirely about narrow definitions of academic success, particularly in english and maths, measured by notoriously poor diagnostic devices. I’d like to throw in a few more objectives, such as working with others, independent thinking, motivation, well being. I certainly wouldn’t get rid of academic achievement, but it should be so much more. For example, a good place to start could be the aims outlined by the Cambridge Primary Review.
Then we need to think about how we decide if schools are meeting these aspirations. You said that no-one has suggested a viable alternative, but this really isnt true; even a quick glance can find plenty of extremely able people have, e.g. here, here and here. Some of their suggestions are:
- As I’ve said above, keep academic success as an indicator of school success, but make it just one of many indicators.
- Focus on incentivising teachers and schools to do well, not punishment for doing badly. That doesn’t mean more pay, but instead create cultures where innovation, mutuality and teacher enquiry are encouraged and rewarded.
- Sample schools. You don’t need data from every school, every year, thus relaxing the constant need for ‘data churn’.
- Use a range of diagnostic assessment tools to measure success.
- Use qualitative data as well as quantitative data as part of the process.
- Replace ‘seek and destroy’ tactics with investment in supporting all schools and teachers to improve.
To achieve this the government needs to use a lot more carrot and a lot less stick. A belief that you can force schools to improve leads directly to a culture where you demand that they do and punish if they don’t, e.g. what we have now. This is punitive, unhelpful and worryingly unhealthy. Governments need to let go of the command and control model and replace it with a faith and respect model. I know that sounds like a fluffy bunny, but here’s a specific example which also shows how the bunny can have teeth.
As currently formulated, Ofsted can have no role in what I’ve outlined. Replace it with a local inspectorate, which can include full time expert assessors, plus teachers and head teachers from the area and also community leaders and parents. The local inspectorate should hold the schools in their area to account on the sorts of issues discussed above, but a second role would be to support the schools in raising their games. It wouldn’t be about snap judgements but schools working with the same sets of critical friends year in year out. A culture should be created where schools and teachers who are failing would be supported, not instantly removed; however, after all avenues of support have been tried, there would need to be changes in personnel.
The local inspectorates themselves would be held to account through a national body that ensures the appropriate level of support and critique is being offered. Now there’s a thought, I’m offering more accountability here – after all, who currently inspects the inspectors?
The glue that binds together the above is trust and time. Schools should be freed from knee-jerk political quick fixes and given time to develop. Teachers should be assumed to be good or better until they prove otherwise. This is a radical difference to where we are now, where schools are forever having to prove they have a right to exist and to show how they are immediately reacting to the latest government whim.
The ‘trust and time’ culture has been carefully built in to the Finnish system and is regarded as one of the key reasons for its success. Interestingly, some colleagues of mine went to Finland recently and asked a head teacher how his school was held accountable to the government – he didn’t even know what the question meant. It wasn’t a translation issue, it was just a language difference of an entirely different kind.
So I think I’ve done what you asked – to get specific on how I would hold schools to account. I’ve offered some theortical and practical ways that I believe could lead to some significant improvements. Now I’d like to offer you a challenge.
I believe that successive governments have placed a rigid accountability model on schools because they want to build power and control. To trust schools means releasing some of this. What drives this is an enjoyment of exercising power, but also a fear of what might happen if they don’t have it.
Can you convince me that I’m wrong? I think governments are genuine about wanting to raise standards, but what is really stopping them trusting schools to do this?