Squaring the circle of accountability

Gareth Evans critiques accountability in Welsh education, and offers on how to improve the system

Education opens doors, enriches lives and builds futures.

Without it, economies fail, relationships crumble and nations flounder.

Little wonder then, that schools are subject to such stringent regulation.

We all want the best for our children and ensuring each and every pupil has access to the same high quality teaching and learning is of paramount importance.

It is a civic right to be educated and educated well – and it is right, therefore, that schools are held accountable for making that happen.

Checks and balances are as essential in the teaching profession as they are in any other; in fact, given the precious commodity with which teachers work – namely our children and young people – they are, I would argue, even more crucial.

But holding schools accountable for pupil outcomes is not straightforward.

The many contextual factors impacting on performance compounds the challenge further.

Comparing schools is like comparing apples and oranges.

Every school is different and no one set of criteria will ever balance the equation.

As a result, we in Wales have what the vast majority of the world’s education systems have – an incoherent, confusing and often contradictory quality assurance process.

Schools are accountable to regional consortia, local authorities, Welsh Government, education watchdog Estyn and, of course, parents and guardians.

They are judged according to GCSE outcomes, the results of National Reading and Numeracy Tests, attendance rates and teacher assessments, to name but a few.

National School Categorisation, with its colour-coded support system, is the closest schools come to being ranked outright.

Despite the Welsh Government’s protestations, comparisons with league tables – still in operation and attracting fierce criticism in England – were perhaps inevitable.

And then there are the unintended consequences.

Secondary schools can sink or swim according to their GCSE results and there is a great deal riding on the proportion of pupils attaining five A*-C grades, including English or Welsh and maths (what is known as the Level 2+ benchmark).

There is a widely-held perception that this has impacted significantly on both pupil outcomes and the subjects they are choosing to study.

Such is the pressure on schools to meet Level 2+ targets, there have been accusations that those capable of achieving the very highest grades have not been pushed enough and a focus on getting as many pupils as possible over the C-D threshold has prevented some of our more able learners pushing for A*-A grades.

So too might it have resulted in more pupils being entered for GCSE exams ahead of schedule – a growing number of early entries would suggest more and more pupils are banking grades without completing their course.

This possibility has not gone unnoticed within the corridors of power and one would imagine the open door to early entries will soon be slammed shut.

The well-documented deflation last month in Wales’ key GCSE pass rates will have done nothing to alter that view.

I suspect a sharp decline in the proportion of pupils sitting certain, less mainstream subjects at GCSE is another unfortunate effect of school benchmarking, with greater emphasis on core disciplines limiting the options available to learners.

Few could argue that the way in which schools are currently held to account is fit for purpose.

And, refreshingly, the Welsh Government agrees.

In a speech to secondary headteachers in February, Education Secretary Kirsty Williams said she had listened to the sector’s concerns and was committed to acting on them.

She said: “I am announcing today a fundamental review of our accountability system which will be shaped by you and our partners.

“I want an accountability system that is: fair; coherent; proportionate; transparent; and based on our shared values for Welsh education.

“This means a system with clear roles and responsibilities, which promotes inclusion and equity, and recognises the value that is added by teachers in classrooms across the system.”

For whatever reason the announcement was not reported in the media and slipped quietly under the radar.

But its lack of coverage made it no less significant.

As we embark on the beginning of a new academic year, squaring the circle of accountability will be a major priority and the impact of whatever transpires from stakeholder engagement will be felt for many years to come.

So what might accountability look like in the future?

The general consensus is that Wales needs a ‘value-added’ measure that better reflects the progress of pupils over time.

Schools need to be rewarded for the contribution they make to a pupil’s development – and they must do so from a level playing field that gives no one school an advantage over another.

Taking better account of a school’s intake will provide a fairer and more accurate indication of performance and, all being well, restrict any ‘gaming’ of the system seen currently.

But Wales is not alone in challenging the status quo and England’s new ‘Progress 8’ metric is worth considering.

The Westminster Government’s new accountability measure was introduced last year and has been hailed as a big improvement on the bar-setting of old.

Progress 8 uses a pupil’s Key Stage 2 results from primary school to give a forecast of expected grades at GCSE level – if pupils meet their predicted grades, a secondary school is deemed to have done well.

A weighting system maintains a focus on maths and English, while other priority subjects are given a higher rating.

But that’s not to say Progress 8 is completely flawless and by comparing pupil performance nationally, rather than clustering schools by levels of disadvantage, those in poorer areas still face more of a hurdle in reaching their target.

If the Welsh Government was to adopt a similar mechanism, the reliability of teacher assessment would surely come into play given the known variation in reporting at primary level.

In the absence of standardised attainment data (SATs having been phased out in Wales some time ago), primary school teachers would be required to predict grades based largely on their own knowledge and understanding of pupil performance.

Ensuring uniformity across the piece would be incredibly difficult, not to mention the added pressure there would be on teachers to make the correct judgement.

Then again, assuming predicted scores are a fair reflection of a pupil’s ability and promise, there will always be winners and losers regardless.

While value-added mechanisms such as Progress 8 identify schools that are performing well with a challenging student intake, it will be more likely to penalise those in which attainment appears to be good, but whose results are not what they could be.

In the absence of a definitive school assessment tool, we in Wales make do with a muddled myriad of measures that confuse more than they clarify.

And then there’s the small matter of curriculum reform.

The bottom line is that Wales’ quasi-punitive accountability system is at odds with Professor Graham Donaldson’s philosophy of empowering teachers to take control and innovate.

I know of several school leaders who are reluctant to dive headfirst into curriculum development for fear of retribution under the existing inspection framework.

It is therefore no great surprise that Prof Donaldson has been charged with reviewing the role of Estyn in supporting education reform.

The review is to be welcomed – as is the Welsh Government’s growing willingness to consult with the teaching profession when challenging existing policy.

The input of school leaders into discussion around accountability is extremely valuable and while I would not advocate a mimicking of practice in England, Progress 8 offers a useful point of reference for further debate.

Ultimately, what we need is a system that works for Wales – and a system that works for all.

But to quote Ms Williams, this does not mean “going back to the days where we do not hold people accountable for their performance”.

We left the handbrake off once before – and we can ill afford to do it again.


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Gareth Evans is executive director of education policy at Yr Athrofa (Institute of Education), University of Wales Trinity Saint David

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