The school system in England is underpinned by a system of accountability in which schools are compared through performance tables and Ofsted inspections. By international standards, England’s system is defined as one of high autonomy, with high accountability (OECD, 2015).
The accountability system that we have today is not simply a vehicle by which the public (primarily parents) are able to judge the performance of individual schools. It also: provides the key data on which the government can identify poorly performing schools which are then subject to direct intervention including, if a maintained school, forced academisation; provides the mechanism by which the government of the day can shape the qualification and subject choices of schools and pupils; and gives one way in which the success of overall government policy is measured (for example, the proportion of pupils in good and outstanding schools).
We therefore have an accountability system with multiple different users, with multiple different purposes. But the system can also have unintended consequences on schools, being associated with issues around teacher recruitment and retention, and potentially acting as a disincentive to inclusive education.
The manifesto commitments from the opposition parties suggest significant changes to school accountability but they are not necessarily rooted in reforms that would lead to higher standards. The abolition of standardised tests by the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the Green Party would run counter to evidence that suggests that they are more beneficial to pupil outcomes than locally administered tests or subjective outcomes. This is particularly the case for the Green Party which would abolish school performance tables despite evidence that suggests this would lower standards, particularly in the lowest performing schools.
The Liberal Democrat proposals to move towards teacher assessments do come at the risk of increased bias in pupil outcomes, particularly by ethnicity and for low income groups.
Announcements prior to the election that the Labour Party would abolish Ofsted generated headlines. However, their manifesto commitments, and those of the Liberal Democrats, do not mean an end of school inspection. It is, however, unclear at this stage what those new inspections would look like and how their operation would differ from that currently carried out.
The Labour Party proposes to address the issue of ‘off-rolling’ in school performance tables – though their solution is not without challenges – and the Liberal Democrats would broaden the remit of inspections to include pupil wellbeing and development. But beyond that, the main parties do little to address some of the key challenges in accountability; namely how both the performance tables and inspections could be made fairer to all schools. In fact, the Conservative Party included nothing on accountability beyond their support for Ofsted.
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