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Last month the Independent argued, “After more than 20 years of league tables, the school system is too compliant and too ready to respond to changes in published performance indicators. And governments are too ready to modify indicators to drive change.” 

Only the previous week MPs concluded that central government has far too little oversight of schools, which is why serious problems such as Birmingham’s Trojan horse scandal could fester unnoticed. The tension about who holds schools to account, and how, is the nub of this problem.

The effectiveness of Ofsted, regulator for quality of provision, has been increasingly been called into question, with several think tanks calling for the body to be overhauled. In March 2014 Policy Exchange said ‘you’d be better off flipping a coin’ than relying on Ofsted judgments and a survey in April 2014 by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers found that more than half (55%) reported the pressures of inspection and targets as having a detrimental effect on their mental wellbeing. Almost four in ten said they have noticed a rise in mental health problems among colleagues over the past two years. To many schools, the system feels far from ‘light touch’.

The impact of the accountability regime is also taking its toll on our young people. In the next OPSN paper, due next week, we discuss how the system incentivises schools to limit opportunities to children in an effort to maximise their position in the current (static and crude) league tables. Evidence that this may be occurring can be seen, for example, in the much lower rates of enrolment for triple science GCSEs in more deprived areas. As our data analysis shows - mapped by the BBC – breadth of subject availability is being denied to our young people and curtailing their life chances.

School inspection is an important aspect of our regulatory framework, and the DfE is right that it needs to be light of touch. But it needs to be supported by analysis of a wide range of data including educational attainment, value added, financial health, school leaver destinations, staff parent and pupil satisfaction. Various aspects of the system collect and monitor this data, but failure to assess the information in the round, over time means that serious problems are falling through the cracks and teachers are feeling under pressure to game examination entries.

There are a number of possible solutions to this. Simon Lebus, chair of our working group and Chief Executive of Cambridge Assessments, recently mused: “The last government introduced primary legislation to set up Ofqual as an agency independent of government in order that it could be guaranteed that the government does not control the public exam system. Is it not time that the compilation and publication of league tables, with all the judgements and decisions that are involved, was also handed over to an independent body?”

An independent body might be one answer, but it is vital that third parties have access to the data and are able to investigate and interpret these in a myriad of intelligent ways. With thanks to Paul Charman and the team at FFT - we encourage you to download the data – available here.

We need a system that encourages the feeding of our children’s minds, not the feeding the requirements of a rigid accountability system.


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