An essay by Michael Bassey written in 2010

People worry about the accountability of schools if externally marked tests and Ofsted inspections are abandoned. They ask: how can we be sure that a particular school is providing a proper education for its pupils? How can parents judge which school is fit for the purpose of educating their children? How can we be sure that public funds are being spent wisely?

Beyond the concerns of parents, government also wants assurances about schools with questions like: ‘are standards rising in schools’ and ‘are there changes happening, or which need to happen, in schools, of which we need to be aware so that we can act appropriately?’

These questions, of course, are typical of what faces any layman in trying to judge the services provided by professionals, be they teachers, doctors, police officers, or lawyers. Indeed some definitions of ‘professional’ include the idea that, while the professional person is expected to provide the very best service to the ‘client’, the latter has little opportunity to judge whether that is the case. Accountability is an attempt to break through this barrier by helping the layman’s common sense.

In order to respond to such concerns we need to know what is meant by school accountability and, curiously, government leaves this vague.

Accountability as Measures
of a Collegial School

Starting from the premise of this website that every school should be collegial, it seems reasonable to give the following meaning to accountability:

    • that the school can be seen by parents and the public at large to be working to its publicly stated aims and objectives;

    • that these embrace the idea of providing all pupils with good, all-round education, according to their perceived educational needs;

    • that the school is seen by parents to be a happy, safe and purposeful place of learning;

    • that the school can provide evidence to parents, local community and local authority that its pupils are achieving appropriately high standards in literacy and numeracy, as measured by ongoing teacher assessments based on the levels of attainment introduced in the 1988 Education Reform Act;

    • that the governing body of the school can provide evidence to parents, local community and local authority auditors that public funds are being spent in the best interests of pupils; and

    • that the governing body of the school publishes annually for parents, local community and local authority a full ‘accountability report’ based on the above issues.

Such a conception of accountability puts:

    • trust in the professionalism of teachers;

    • confidence in the competence of school governors to embrace these points; and

    • ultimate responsibility for the local school being ‘a good school’ in the hands of the local community.

It is clear that in the above terms there is not only no need for Ofsted inspections and external testing, but that these are a waste of public funds that could be better spent on providing extra teachers for schools in problematic environments.

Local Accountability through Parents, Governors and Local Community

For the concerns of parents, there are already several effective forms of accountability, viz:

    • parents choosing a school now can receive detailed prospectuses of local schools;

    • parents now receive detailed reports from teachers, written and face-to-face, about the progress of their own children; and

    • parents with concerns can without difficulty meet teachers to discuss their children.

If we take away SAT formal testing and Ofsted inspections, but put in their place the measures listed above as accountability measures of a collegial school, then parents can be assured that there are ample opportunities for them to know how well their school is performing.

In carrying out their responsibilities, governors also have ample opportunities to know how well the school is performing in these terms:

    • governors now receive termly reports from the head about the educational progress of the school;

    • governors are expected to visit classrooms, observe teaching and talk to teachers, parents, and others about the work of the school.

A further line of accountability by governors is suggested in the above description of measures for a collegial school, viz:

    • local communities and local authorities should receive an annual report from governing bodies on the progress of the school, on how they judge it to be serving the best interests of its pupils, and the extent to which they consider it is giving value for money.

If parents, governors, local communities, and local authorities carefully scrutinize and discuss the reports made to them, challenging the school and giving it support when deemed necessary, then worthwhile accountability is taking place. Governing bodies can call on the local authority and its school inspectors when professional guidance is needed. Ongoing training for school governors in how to seek accountability and induction provision for new governors is important.

It needs to be said that the professionalism required of teachers also requires responsible action by parents and governors. A parent constantly expressing undue concern about their child, or a governor with a maverick obsession about some feature of school, can make inordinate demands on the time of headteacher and others and so disrupt the overall management of the school. Many schools have had isolated experiences of the aberrant use of accountability procedures and governing bodies could do well to define strategies for trying to support proper concerns and complaints and restrict time-wasting obsessive ones. The procedures adopted by some local councils for dealing with 'vexatious' members may be helpful for governing bodies too.

National Accountability through a National Education Council

A quite different issue is the proper concern of government to oversee the national picture. Are standards of literacy and numeracy rising? Are the needs of industry and business being met by the schools? Can schools be advised on tackling drug abuse, or violent crime, or teenage pregnancy? Are pupils being prepared for the upheavals in society that may come with climate change?

For these national concerns better accountability would lie with a National Education Council, independent of government, thoroughly research-based, which advises Parliament, government, general public, local authorities, schools, teachers, and governors on significant educational issues. It should have a balanced membership of teachers’ leaders, parliamentarians, academics and other prominent members of society.

Local authorities, having studied the annual reports coming from school governing bodies, should submit an annual report to the National Education Council on the state and progress of education in their area. In turn the Council should submit an annual report to Parliament. It should have adequate funds to carry out its functions effectively and to commission research into matters of concern.

Also it should monitor national standards in various basic skills and with several age groups through a robust national sampling process. This is the only reasonably competent way of telling whether standards are changing. A sterling approach to this was done by the former Assessment of Performance Unit, which, sadly, like the former Central Advisory Council for Education, was disbanded by the Thatcher government.

How this Approach to
Accountability would Work


At present government agencies try to tell parents which are the ‘good’ schools for their children. (Follow the link above for a discussion of what might be meant by a 'good' school.) However, as discussed on this site, test and exam results, league tables and Ofsted reports tell, inadequately, what the government chooses to portray. It is right that schools should be accountable not just for the considerable sums of public money that they spend but, more so, for the education they provide for the children in their care. The following outline shows how school accountability could start with parents, and move through school governors, local community, local authority, a National Education Council, and to Parliament.

PARENTS – as now:

    • in choosing a school can get detailed prospectuses and make visits;

    • receive detailed reports of their child’s progress from teachers and meet them;

    • if there are concerns can without difficulty arrange meetings with teachers.

TEACHERS AND HEAD – as now, but enhanced:

    • regularly evaluate their work (based on the self-evaluation procedures developed by Professor Macbeath at Cambridge University – not the tick box variety of Ofsted);

    • include the findings in head’s reports to school governors.

SCHOOL GOVERNORS – as now, but practice enhanced:

    • receive termly reports from head about educational work and progress of the school;

    • are expected to visit classrooms, talk to teachers, parents and others about work of the school;

    • should be prepared to challenge and to support the school staff when they deem it necessary;

    • should through their finance committee have oversight of the schools expenditure and ensure that it is properly audited.

LOCAL COMMUNITY – what I would like to see:

    • an annual report of each school made to the local community by being printed in local newspapers. This would be in place of ridiculous league tables. It would generate much local interest and could lead to valuable debate on letters pages about the work of the school.

LOCAL AUTHORITY –what I would like to see:

    • local inspectors (supported where necessary by HMIs) giving ‘challenge and support’ to schools – in place of Ofsted inspectors;

    • local authorities drawing together school annual reports and reporting annually to a National Education Council.

NATIONAL EDUCATION COUNCIL – what I would like to see:

    • an independent National Education Council with a balanced membership of teachers’ leaders, MPs, academics and other prominent members of society;

    • funded by government but independent of it;

    • arranges nationwide sample monitoring of basic skills;

    • collates evidence from local authorities reports;

    • commissions research on key issues that it identifies and disseminates findings;

    • reports on the state of education nationwide to Parliament.

PARLIAMENT – what I would like to see;

    • perhaps once every two years receives and debates a report from the National Education Council on the state of education nationwide.

A Note on Accountability in
Terms of Levels of
Attainment at the End of KS2

Unquestionably there is a need for teachers to give proper accountability to parents for the progress made by their children. In primary schools much of this is by word of mouth in informal contacts between teachers and parents. But it is worthwhile considering what written assessments are required to do this effectively. At present they are of two kinds.

    (1) The written comments made on a variety of aspects of the child’s work and idiosyncratic to that child, as made in annual or sometimes term reports to parents. Unlike the old style ‘Good work and progress’ or ‘Could do better’ primary teachers now give parents mini essays on how each child is doing.

    (2) The levels of attainment on literacy and maths in terms of the national curriculum level definitions. These are in the form: ‘Your John is at level 4 in literacy and level 3 in maths’. The enormous industry (with teacher sweat, parent anxiety and pressures on children) that goes into making these assessments is ridiculous. It is a waste of time – and time that is precious in terms of educating (rather than measuring) children. The criteria for these levels of attainment are spelled out in current documents and nearly every primary school class teacher has a clear view as to where each child is. The availability of testing materials for teachers to occasionally check their judgement and for newly appointed teachers to learn the ropes, is obviously important – but regular use of these is unnecessary.

Two points on this. Paul Black, Dylan Wiliam and John Gardner reported to the House of Commons Select Committee in May 2007:

    In such public examinations as Key Stage tests … the sampling error is such that between 20% and 30% of candidates will earn a result which will differ by at least one Level from their ‘true’ score. …. to reduce the proportion of pupils wrongly classified in a Key Stage 2 test to within 10% would require 30 hours of testing (Memorandum published on Parliament website).

I understand from Prof Dylan that improvements in test reliability now mean that the ‘incorrect’ proportion is considered to be down to 20%. This still means that a lot of parents are given inaccurate information about their child.

But a second point is pertinent. Suppose that, by miraculous and gigantic effort, completely accurate information could be given to parents. What would be its purpose? Unlike secondary school leaving exams it is not linked to getting a job or a place at another institution of learning. Secondary schools cannot use it for selecting pupils and tend not to use it for grouping, but prefer to do their own testing after the pupils arrive.

So what is this industry about? I would wield Occam’s razor and delete the formal testing. It would also reduce the nation’s education budget albeit put a lot of bureaucrats out of work.

This page was last amended on 22 April 2010.