The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Lisa Griffin

Accountability: what do we mean and what does it look like?

The Headteachers Roundtable Summit saw more than 200 attendees come together to focus on key issues including assessment and accountability and recruitment and retention.

The summit kicked off with chair of the Headteachers Roundtable core group Stephen Tierney talking about accountability. It was to be a strong theme running through the day.

With increasing accountability in our education system, it can’t be forgotten that what ultimately matters is what happens in the classroom. As Stephen said, ‘It’s where the magic happens’.

The interface between teacher and pupil is vital, and we’re all working towards ensuring every school is one where pupils can thrive and flourish. But with increasing workloads, constant policy change and staff shortages, how can we do this?

Accountabil​ity around the world

The opening keynote was delivered by Lucy Crehan, author of Cleverlands: The Secrets Behind the Success of the World's Education Superpowers. The book details her journey through countries which have been identified as high-performing, including Finland, Japan, Singapore, Shanghai and Canada. She taught in schools in these countries and spoke to school leaders to discover more about their education systems. In particular, she looked at how these countries achieve their high performance and what we can learn from them.

Lucy was firm in her belief that we need accountability, but made the point that we don’t always agree on what it means. The two examples below are based on different assumptions about the causes of underperformance in a school and how to address them.

  • Liability and culpability: blame school leaders and the governing body and replace them by getting new people in to lead the school.
  • Responsibility and answerability: discuss and identify the reasons for underperformance in a school, determine the improvements to be made and look internally at building the capacity of existing staff to make these improvements.

Those in schools are well aware of the high stakes when it comes to underperformance in England; school leaders don’t get much time to turn round a school. Ofsted give you three years but, for example, you may be aware of a visit from your regional schools commissioner (RSC) in the next two years. Because of this, the governing body will want evidence of improvement within a year. Inevitably this increases the pressure on the headteacher, which in turn puts staff under pressure to produce evidence of improvement (likely to take the form of paper work), increasing the amount of workload and bureaucracy. A vicious cycle.

Comparing England to other countries, particularly those that are higher performing, the high stakes accountability isn’t always common. Lucy found publishing exam results not to be common practice. In Singapore for example, pupils take exams at the end of primary school, at 16 and 18 years old but the results are not made public.

What can we do?

Lucy made some suggestions regarding changes to our accountability system that could be bought in and these were well received in the room.

  • If schools can hold each other accountable, through peer review, there will be less perceived need for external inspection. We can do this without permission.
  • As suggested in the headteachers round table green paper, Ofsted could then just provide the external check, and offer a ‘quality mark’ rather than a grading.
  • Having Ofsted identify underperformance, and then RSCs broker support, means you overcome the potential issue of those who offer/broker support making the decision as to its effectiveness.

Building a high quality teacher workforce

In Cleverlands, Lucy also described the differences she found between England and other countries in terms of teaching as a profession. She spent some time in Finland, where teachers are extremely well respected. Teaching is a Masters-level profession, giving it enhanced prestige and helping to improve the quality of teachers on entry to schools. People get five years training before they reach the classroom.

Teachers are well paid but salaries are not as high in comparison to other countries. Working hours are similar but due a lower accountability system and less bureaucracy, teachers have more time to get on with the day job of teaching.

What about England?

Again, Lucy made some suggestions for change that could be made here.

Have the government pay for teacher training on condition that those who partake stay in the profession for a certain amount of years.

As suggested in the headteachers round table (HTRT) green paper, a national recruitment team, or centralising of some teacher deployment, would give us some of the benefits seen in countries that recruit and deploy teachers to where they’re needed.

Support the College of Teaching, and consider introducing a Chartered Teacher status to allow for a quality mark within a national environment of low teacher selectivity.

What​ next?

Following the publication of the alternative green paper ‘Schools that enable all to thrive and flourish’ by the HTRT, the summit was a chance to come together and build on the proposals made in the paper. Containing a number of key policy proposals focusing on pupils and staff, direct from school leaders and education professionals, the event wanted to encourage discussion around the proposals and extend them. 

The paper was borne out of frustration with current government and policy, and the group wanting to demonstrate an alternative route to creating a successful school system. The next step is to develop the paper and proposals and present to government.

After that? We’ll have to wait and see…

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