Sense and Non-Sense in Primary School Accountability

Professor Colin Richards provides a perspective on ASCL’s recently published report on primary school accountability. He is generally supportive of a number of its specific recommendations but is critical of what he calls some non-sensical elements.


ASCL’s recently published report, Sense and Accountability: Holding our primary schools to account for what matters most, offers a more realistic vision than that of the hard-line advocates of high-stakes accountability or of that small minority of the profession opposed to any form of official accountability. Neither interest group represents nor can achieve a consensus in this most contentious area of educational policy and practice. In trying to establish a sensible consensus the report makes a number of valuable recommendations but is not without its difficulties. It contains much good sense but also a fair share of non-sense and of over-optimistic aspiration.

The report is at its best and makes most sense when it is at its most specific. Certainly, as it recommends, more than the tested subjects should be commented upon in inspection reports; the current blatant imbalance in their favour does an injustice to schools’ efforts at providing a richer curriculum.

Now that the battle to oppose performance tables seems irretrievably lost (or has it?), it makes sense for these to be based on a three- or, better, four-year rolling period rather than relying on a single year’s assessments that are likely to unrepresentative in a significant number of cases.

It is appropriate too to advocate abandoning national writing assessments if, as I believe, there are so many qualitative, subjective elements to their assessments, so placing too much strain on their reliability.

It is also sensible and humane to object to the use in reporting of ‘met or ‘not met’ in relation to an arbitrary standard in just two areas of the curriculum– a practice likely to demoralise many children at the start of their secondary career. However, the report’s advocacy of informing parents and children of their scaled scores is not really a sensible or intelligible alternative.

The report does have its non-sensical elements. It makes no sense to recommend that ‘government and Ofsted should engage with research around different ways to measure outcomes which are important but less tangible’ (my italics). If they are intangible (and they are) they cannot possibly be measured but can only be judged and then by fallible human beings called teachers and parents who know children well.

It is non-sensical to imply that there exists a body of unproblematic “best available evidence” on how to enable children to succeed which should inform effective curriculum design. Where is it? The EEF? The latter’s approach to ‘what works’ raises as many, if not more, questions than it purportedly answers. Where then is the definitive source of this “best available evidence”?

It is non-sensical too to hold schools firmly, definitively and non-problematically to account for children’s progress and attainment when these are affected by many factors beyond schools’ control and when the so-called measures are so problematic. This is true of measures at all ages but especially of the Reception base-line assessment which ASCL among others are helping foist on EYS specialists many of who are convinced of its folly and unreliability. However, it does make sense for schools to be held accountable for the quality of education they provide since this is their raison d’etre.

Lastly the main recommendations betrays a degree of over-optimistic, if praiseworthy, aspiration. It would certainly be good to work with a broad range of stake-holders to construct a clear set of aims for primary education but how realistic is this given the range of values held by primary practitioners and the difficulties of expressing these in terms which are clear and not subject to a variety of interpretations? Likewise the report, like the DfE, has unrealistic aspirations for governors; the large majority cannot be expected to ‘understand their school’s performance data intimately’(my italics). How optimistic too are the claims made for ‘ethical leadership” or for educational research more generally when education is such a value-contested area?

Perhaps in line with one of its recommendations I should award the report a scaled score – 105 given my reservations ? But as with so much metric-related accountability is that an appropriate measure and is it intelligible ? I have my doubts.


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