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Despite all the talk of freedom and autonomy, the real story of the last quarter century of education policy – the period since the creation of Ofsted and the publication of the first school league tables – has been of steady tightening of the government’s grip on schools. That control is exerted not through explicit command or direct control, but through the implicit instructions of the accountability system; the priorities that are established, and the incentives created, by the setting of numerical performance targets with the threat of serious sanction for those who fail to hit them.

But there are good reasons for thinking the government’s vice-like grip on the system may soon be loosened; that May 2018 will come to be seen as the high-water mark for England’s school accountability system, the moment the tide finally began to turn.

The RSA’s Ideal School Exhibition, which argued that this approach to driving up standards has now reached the limits of its usefulness, ended with a prediction that:

“We have now reached that critical point where change becomes possible – where the costs of the system outweigh the benefits; where the risks of inaction are higher than the risks of reform”.

And so it has proved.

Speaking to the annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) this month, Education Secretary Damian Hinds did what none of his predecessors has done: he announced that the government intends to loosen its grip on schools so teachers are freed to “get on with the job”.

Most of what was promised, both in the speech and in the accompanying DfE statement of the principles that will guide its reforms to the accountability system, is designed to create certainty for schools, so it is clear to whom, and for what, they are being held accountable, as well as when they will be subject to external intervention.  

But the government isn’t just making the system more transparent and predictable. It is also rolling it back. From now on, Hinds promises, the much-feared sanctions of last resort (mandated changes to leadership and governance) that have done so much to drive the ‘gaming’ behaviours to which some school leaders, if sufficiently desperate, will resort, will be reserved solely for schools judged “Inadequate” by Ofsted – currently just 2 per cent of all schools. The “Coasting” category, for schools that remain for three years between the floor threshold and a second, slightly higher one, is to be scrapped. And the Regional Schools Commissioners, whose ‘visits’ to these schools would induce pre-inspection levels of additional work and stress for teachers, have been ordered back to barracks. Ofsted, and Ofsted alone, will inspect schools and make judgements about school performance. In future, schools that are struggling but that have not been judged Inadequate by Ofsted will receive “an offer of support”. Assuming the support they are given is timely, effective and unaccompanied by any stigmatising public labelling, this too should be welcomed. 

Just as you can’t tell whether the tide is turning by watching just one wave hit the beach, so it is hard to tell whether the government is changing course on the basis of one speech. But look at the string of announcements and pronouncements that preceded it and a clear pattern can already be seen. There has been the year-long campaign that Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, has been waging to get schools focused on education’s true purposes rather than “hunting for performance table prizes and stickers”. There has been the government’s various initiatives to clamp down on the practice of schools excluding or ‘off-rolling’ low performing students to protect their league table position – including a formal Review led by Edward Timpson and some technical changes to the way schools’ schools’ progress scores and league table positions are calculated to reduce the incentive to play this highly unethical game.  And then there has been the seriousness with which policy makers and regulators have engaged with ASCL’s Commission on Ethical Leadership and NAHT’s Commission on School Accountability, and the growing number of well-respected academics and school and system leaders who have added their voices to those calling for reform. Join these dots and the direction in which the government plans to travel becomes clear.

So long as the sector can resist the temptation to call for the impossible, and instead come up with some serious and sensible reforms to reduce workload and to tackle the serious distortions to professional priorities and practices the current system has caused, there is every reason to think that change is on its way.

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