Education policy and politics writer John David Blake followed #CoeCam on Twitter and YouTube and talks here about what he learnt about the role of government and social media in accountability. Watch Professor Coe's lecture here.
It seems very much in keeping with an age in which social media has reconfigured the ways teachers talk to each other that I am writing a blog post about an event I engaged with the first time via Twitter and second time via YouTube. That event was Rob Coe’s recent lecture to Cambridge Assessment about the validity of England’s accountability systems in education. And social media had its own part to play here, as Coe made clear that it was via such media, given a platform at the very first ResearchED conference, that his conclusions on the unacceptably imprecise quality of lesson observation data reached out across education and changed the way Ofsted went about inspecting schools.
"Even the definition of accountability is not straightforward.
Although it is certainly worthy of as much attention as that revelation, immediate transformations such as the changes to lesson observations are unlikely to be the result of this talk from Coe, however. Not because it was any less powerfully argued, but because the words he used most often were “we don’t know”. This was a call for serious consideration of the current state of accountability in England’s school system, but not for revolutionary overhaul, precisely because the evidence base is far too thin. “It’s easy to garnish a pre-prepared view” Coe informed us, but that’s not a well-evidenced argument.
Even the definition of accountability is not straightforward. Is it about bureaucratic compliance? Market satisfaction? Coe argues that the quality of performance must be important, but even this is not simple: to be accountability the measurement of performance must be tied to some form of incentive (or disincentive) but, after that, the format of an accountability system rests on a variety of decisions. Are the results public or private? Is the standard formal or flexible? Is the measure enough by itself to tell us what we wish to know or must it be interpreted in context? These questions need answers before an accountability system can work since they will determine not just the methods of accountability but how and why those within the system react to them.
"...Coe takes aim at both Ofsted and exams.
In terms of the specifics of the current English school accountability system, Coe takes aim at both Ofsted and exams. Not because he subscribes to the inflexible anti-accountability views all-too-common in English education—he is clear that the sum total of the evidence available supports the conclusion that accountability, done correctly, has a positive effect and he gives short shrift to those who think that “trust” is an unconditional state of affairs to which teachers are, as of right, entitled. But Coe demands that the consequences of accountability be considered and adjusted for: “if judgements within the system are confounded by irrelevant factors, they are wrong,” he says bluntly.
Thus, that grammar schools are almost never found to even require improvement let alone be inadequate whilst schools with the lowest-ability intakes have a 50/50 chance of entering that category raises a question Ofsted must answer by ensuring their inspection teams are, and are seen to be, consistent, reliable and not distracted by extraneous factors. That GCSE examinations are used as evidence of a student’s ability in the particular subject concerned and as a measure of their wider academic competence and as a measure of the quality of their teachers is not necessarily a problem but the nature of these differing levels of accountability ought to be known by all involved and the impact on validity weighed up.
"...government will never leave the accountability lever alone...
Ultimately, Coe concludes that government will never leave the accountability lever alone: it is a powerful one and one they can pull and see clear results. Moreover, he argues that ensuring successful accountability systems is not a design function but an engineering one: there must be experimentation and adaptation, a far greater accumulation of and debate about the evidence and about the impacts, because there will always be unintended effects. But he also appears optimistic, though certainly not ebullient, about the chances of such engineering improving the accountability systems in use in England today.
Ultimately, that via social media teachers can now more freely engage with each other and with academics like Coe and his colleagues, with their regulator and with the bodies that set their exams, and with parents, students and employers who all use the outcomes in different ways, is not merely a boon of the digital age, but an essential prerequisite of us moving forward to create, as Coe says, the “most optimal system” for school accountability we can.
John David Blake
History consultant and education policy and politics writer