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Rebalancing holding schools to account with helping them to improve

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Just over two years ago - in September 2018  - NAHT published the report of the Accountability Commission, called ‘Improving School Accountability’. 

Our report recognised that the quality of education in England had transformed over the last 25 years and that the majority of schools were now good or better. It went so far as to say that accountability arrangements had in fact contributed to this improvement, over that time. 

However, the main conclusion of the commission was that arrangements that had lifted the system to good were unlikely to lift it to great. In the words of Joel Klein, ‘you can mandate adequacy. Greatness has to be unleashed’. 

In a system that has largely transformed over the last quarter of a century, with the vast majority of schools now good, we concluded that high-stakes accountability was acting as a brake on improvement. To improve standards further, the commission said that we should rebalance holding schools to account with helping them to improve. 

On 18 November 2020, we publish the report of the independent School Improvement Commission, having set out to answer the simple question: ‘how can we better support schools to improve?’ 

As chair of the commission, I was determined that this report would not become a report about inspection. But it was abundantly clear from the very outset that it is near impossible to separate discussions about school improvement from accountability. 

Accountability and inspection cast a long shadow over schools. They influences decisions, both big and small. The focus of inspection frameworks undeniably shapes school improvement priorities, for good or bad. 

All too often, school improvement is defined by the school’s journey through the Ofsted grading structure. A school is seen to have improved when it moves from 'requires improvement' to 'good' and then finally 'outstanding'. 

For some, securing an ‘outstanding’ judgement has become a goal in itself, rather than simply being seen as a snapshot description of where the school is on its journey of continuous improvement. The secret to a great education cannot be found in the pages of Ofsted's Inspection handbook. Outstanding does not describe the pinnacle of educational excellence; if it did, arguably no-one should ever achieve it. 

The ambition of commissioners was greater than that: that every school continues to get better. We concluded that we should redefine and celebrate the most successful schools as those that are ‘best at getting better’, irrespective of whether they start near the top, or the bottom, of a performance leagues table. 

Put simply, our report is about creating the conditions in which teachers can thrive so that pupils can succeed. Sir Tim Brighouse illustrates this point well: 

"If the teacher makes the weather, the school creates the climate. School Improvement is how schools create an ever-better climate for the individual and groups of teachers to do their job in the most favourable circumstances." 

As well as exposing a simple truth behind improving schools, Tim’s analogy captures perfectly the power and responsibility on the shoulders of teachers, echoing Ginot’s observation that teachers make the weather. 

It also captures perfectly the weight of responsibility on the shoulders of leaders – to create the conditions in which every teacher can become the very best they can be. And at the risk of stretching the analogy too far, school leadership is increasingly about shielding teachers from the gathering storm-clouds so that they can maintain focus on what is truly important. 

In creating a better education system, we clearly do not need the government to mandate a shift in culture in schools – the power to change the climate resides with school leaders. 

But in the face of high-stakes accountability, ‘doing the right thing’ and shielding staff from the gathering storm-clouds can take brave and courageous leadership. This should not be the case. The government must make choosing the right path the easiest one to take. They alone have the power and opportunity to remove barriers by aligning accountability incentives and penalties. 

We need schools that are supportive, kind places to work and to thrive. And by working together – the government and the profession – we stand the best chance of further unleashing the potential residing in England’s schools. 

Watch the video below where Nick Brook outlines the impact the covid-19 crisis has had on schools and why we believe now is the time to consider new ways to improve standards.

First published 17 November 2020