School accountability in England: A critique

Written by: Hilary Grayson | Published:
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No school accountability system is perfect, but will mooted changes to inspection in England tackle some of the unintended consequences that school leaders face? Hilary Grayson draws some lessons from international practice

The school accountability regime in England has met with a lot of scrutiny in the past year. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) led an expert commission in considering the case for a reformed school accountability system, and coinciding with publication of the commission’s report in September 2018, there was a lot of media coverage on the issue.

The Department for Education (DfE) has recently published a brief paper entitled Principles for a clear and simple school accountability system (May 2018), which is to be followed by more detailed proposals and a future full consultation.

And Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, in her Annual Report for 2017/18, noted that: “Where (an) accountability measure becomes the sole driver of a school, college or nursery’s work, their real purpose – to help young people learn and grow – is lost.”

NFER’s chief executive, Carole Willis, was invited to participate on the NAHT commission, whose subsequent report Improving school accountability launched with the key message: “We want to create an education system that rivals the best in the world. However, too many of the incentives and sanctions are working against this ambition.”

Alongside the commission’s deliberations, a team of researchers at NFER produced a rapid literature review – What impact does accountability have on curriculum, standards and engagement in education? – on the impact of accountability on curriculum, standards and engagement in several international jurisdictions (September 2018).

We selected a mixture of countries that we thought would provide learning for England – some were top achievers in the highly visible international comparative studies, others had similar achievement to England but perhaps a different way of “doing” accountability.

We defined accountability broadly as a government’s mechanism for holding educational institutions to account for the delivery of high-quality education. We reviewed a small body of the best available evidence on the accountability systems in Australia (New South Wales), England, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and Wales, focusing for reasons of manageability on evidence relating to primary education.

It was clear even from the limited evidence studied that no country has all the answers. There is no perfect accountability system and all methods have their pros and cons. However, two themes emerged strongly from the literature in terms of reported accountability impacts: the phenomenon of curriculum narrowing, and the professional capacity of teachers to engage with accountability data.

Curriculum narrowing and ‘teaching to the test’

Curriculum narrowing as a consequence of “teaching to the test” was addressed in literature from a number of the jurisdictions we studied. Where pupil performance is used as a high-stakes accountability measure, there is concern that schools feel constrained to prioritise those parts of the curriculum that are tested at the expense of others that are not.

Ofsted’s latest Annual Report, referred to earlier, acknowledges such perceptions and promises to put the curriculum – “the substance of education” – back at the heart of the inspection system in the new inspection framework from September 2019.

We also found suggestions that some pupils may receive an impoverished experience of the school curriculum as a result of targeted teaching where accountability systems focus on “borderline” or “cliff edge” measures. This may occur, for example, if there is (actual or perceived) pressure to ensure that a certain percentage of pupils attains a threshold standard, leading teaching efforts to be concentrated on raising the performance of “borderline” pupils.

Pupils may furthermore become less engaged learners when the performance of some groups is emphasised at the expense of others. In this case, the application of accountability measures could be said to increase the achievement gap; although conversely they could be used to reduce the gap, such as when they inform funding programmes for disadvantaged pupils.

Our discussion explored whether there is a way of breaking the reported link between schools feeling compelled to focus on curriculum areas that are most salient for accountability purposes at the expense of other areas that do not have accountability consequences. We noted that clarity over what is expected through the inspection regime is a key driver of school behaviour, and whether schools focus on those subjects which are assessed or take a wider view of the curriculum.

Training teachers to engage with data

Another recurring theme in the literature was the complexity of accountability and the suggestion that the training teachers receive may not align with the requirements that their jurisdictions’ accountability systems place on them.

Several studies suggested that teachers’ initial training might not adequately prepare them to be fully assessment literate and data literate – to have a comprehensive understanding of how to implement assessment or of how to interpret assessment or other outcome data. This echoes the findings of two recent explorations of aspects of the education system in England – the Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training (DfE, January 2015) and the Commission on Assessment without Levels (DfE, September 2015).

This could be seen as a positive impact of accountability, in that it has exposed an area of weakness in professional development that should be addressed anyway, irrespective of the accountability system in place. In other words, support for teachers to understand how to use assessment data to support their teaching and learning should be part and parcel of any professional set of teaching skills.

Future directions

Recent reforms in England have aimed to address some of the unintended consequences this review has discussed, with the removal of assessment levels and refocusing of the accountability system onto progress measures rather than absolute standards.

Ofsted is about to launch a consultation on its draft new inspection framework (expected this month). It will be interesting to see how far these approaches reduce unintended consequences in the system in the future, and likewise what sort of “clear and simple” system results from the forthcoming DfE consultation.

Andreas Schleicher, the lead PISA expert at the OECD, suggests that effective approaches to accountability may involve a move in emphasis towards “professional accountability” systems and collaborative, less hierarchical approaches where “teachers are accountable not so much to administrative authorities but primarily to their fellow teachers and school principals”.

Translating this to England, we could see the more “horizontal” structures, such as school-to-school networks, complementing the “vertical” accountability system of assessment and Ofsted inspection. Interestingly, our research found examples of such peer-to-peer support in all the systems we explored.

  • Hilary Grayson is an information and reviews manager at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

Further information

  • Keep up-to-date with the latest NFER research and resources relevant to school leaders and practitioners by signing up to its monthly e-newsletter, NFER Direct for Schools:
  • Improving school accountability, Accountability Commission, NAHT, September 2018:
  • What impact does accountability have on curriculum, standards and engagement in education? NFER, September 2018:
  • For fuller details on Ofsted’s proposals and Amanda Spielman’s recent comments on the new inspection framework, see Schools prepare for January consultation over Ofsted plans (Headteacher Update, October 2018):
  • Principles for a clear and simple school accountability system, DfE, May 2018:
  • Ofsted Annual Report 2017/18, Ofsted, December 2018:

NFER Research Insights

This article was published as part of Headteacher Update’s NFER Research Insights series. A free pdf of the latest Research Insights best practice and advisory articles can be downloaded from the supplements page of this website:

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