CoeCam A teachers view

#CoeCam - A teacher's view

Secondary school maths teacher, Robert Smith, shares his thoughts and further questions arising after #CoeCam - hosted by Cambridge Assessment with Professor Robert Coe speaking about accountability. Watch Professor Coe's lecture here. 

It was a typical Thursday evening in October when I travelled to Downing College, Cambridge with a colleague from another South Leicestershire school. The seminar suggested that it would probe deeply into the form of accountability which has built up in England. I was particularly interested to see how it would be 'critical' of Ofsted’s role and framework, and also how it would explore issues of validity and dependability in 'data on the system'.

"...teachers should be trusted.

Having just delivered a lesson on Pythagoras, the first challenge was to get to Downing College from the Queen Anne's Terrace car park. Sat Nav suggested a 15 minute walk yet logic dictated a “shortcut” across the grass in front of us. Five minutes later we are greeted at Downing College by the Porters Lodge and shortly after a welcome from the Network team and also a cup of coffee.

The talk started with Tim Oates introducing Professor Coe for a discussion of how schools can compare themselves to others. If you haven’t seen the TEd Talk on Big Data here is the link: Kenneth Cukier - Big data is better than data
There are more and more bits of data collected by more agencies, they are all hungry for data and for ways to use it. The problem I see is that the education system is part of a complex social situation, there is lots of data on all aspects of it but how can we measure “it” – whatever “IT” happens to be at any given moment. 

What data? How much? What do we take from it? Professor Rob Coe has spent a great deal of time looking at the validity of England's accountability data and in particular in what ways accountability systems vary. We are all aware that consumer choice drives system improvement. Accountability = Evaluation + Incentives. There was a mention during the lecture to look into Garn & Gibb (2001) for three types of accountability - Bureaucratic / Performance / Market.

Accountability can be used as an improvement mechanism, but what is the mechanism by which we expect to improve? As an audience we were asked “What does accountability look like to you?” It was soon clear we were all in favour of “intelligent accountability”, although it was quickly pointed out that not many would ever be in favour of “unintelligent accountability”.

"If what you're doing isn't good... would you want to share or hide?

In school we know how important it is to trust your colleagues, teachers should be trusted, but the trust needs to be willing and confidence based. If it is benevolent then we know that it is reliable, competent, honest and open. From a position of trust we know that there are good intentions and that they (whoever they are) would not exploit you. Which leads me on to another question we were asked to ponder:

“If what you are doing isn't good, do you want to...":
1) cover it up
2) expose it, share, examine, maximise the learning opportunity.

Teachers trusting parents and students makes all the difference here. When parents are well intentioned and in line with what you want then you can work together towards a common goal. One of the ways relating to accountability as a teacher is how you feel about your own inadequacy. How do/would you feel? Would you want to share or hide? Think of the question as: “Do you want to observed during your best or worse lesson?” Does the 'performance' aspect of lesson observation actually helps both sides understand how things can improve? 

This moves me on to look into evidence on the impact of accountability. The research on the effects of targeted outcomes is not clear although it seems that getting rid of accountability altogether would actually be detrimental. A watched pot does not boil but at least if it is watched you can see whether the stove is on. In 2013, a DfE study showed the limitations of existing research. In terms of accountability there are conflicting claims and evidence and most evidence is weak at best. Here is a link to the NUT 'Exam factories' report which looked at the impact of accountability measures on children and young people:

"A watched pot does not boil but at least if it is watched you can see whether the stove is on.

We need to pay attention to all of perceptions from teachers, students and parents rather than just what can be independently observed from any one of group. We also need to unpick cause and effect. Pressured accountability leads to students being anxious about exams, but were they not anxious before accountability? Students were always anxious about exams, even before Ofsted existed. Direct incentives do drive people's behaviour. Accountability does have a small positive effect on targeted attainment. An argument can therefore be put forward to make decisions based on assessment. Should we use “grade B” in GCSE as a filter for A-Level maths study for example. Or if a student does not achieve a threshold in a KS2 exam should they then repeat it again in Year 7? Exams and test scores ARE used to judge schools and support for schools, ie: being closed down or taken over (if that can be considered support) 

Who should determine whether it is OK to use exams in the way? Exam boards, employers, Ofqual?

In terms of accountability measures, do the measures represent valued outcomes? Are there important outcomes not captured by the measures? For example, in an individual school, is it not important to measure where students are two years later? What proportion of your ex-students are not in employment, education or training? 

"What's the easiest way to a Secondary Ofsted Outstanding.

Classroom observation is a particularly hot topic in the accountability measures debate. It has been said that there's “no scientific evidence” to show classroom observations lead to better learning. And we all know that as teachers we love it when we are judged. This is not evidence! 

I suggest that you pay a visit to Trevor Burtons blog Eating Elephants ( There is a nice post on “What's the easiest way to a Secondary Ofsted Outstanding“ including a graph used by Professor Coe himself during his #CoeCam lecture.

" we really know a good lesson when we see one?

But do we really know a good lesson when we see one? With regards to classroom observation - it's harder than you think! We all know that while there are people still observing lessons, still grading teaching and learning, there is now also an emphasis on the analysis of classroom artefacts, lesson plans, assignments, assessments...

It is thought that perhaps inspectors should have to pass an exam. But not only pass an exam but to also establish the validity of inspection judgements. Show them video (lots of video) of lessons and see how well their judgement aligns with others. Then give them a set of complicated real data. What would they be able to infer from that? What would you want to know? It is not just the skills and ability to make a judgement but the ability to then align that with others and to make sure that the judgement is valid that is important for inspectors.  

...we come back to the bigger question, 'Why do we get out of bed in the morning?'

To conclude, we come back to the bigger question, 'Why do we get out of bed in the morning?' or as Professor Coe asked us 'What do we consider success?'  

Competition between schools allows choice. The point is not about winners and losers but that you get a better system wide approach. In education we should be thinking it is important for all to succeed and we don't want to climb up by treading others down. Is cooperation and collaboration between schools a better way forward? There is a large part of England and Wales where you either go to this school or you go to that school. An analogy springs to mind that education is not like buying baked beans... If you buy a bad can of baked beans you can just buy another but in education, you can't just buy another. The choice of school shouldn't matter! 

The solution, “Just make everywhere better!”

Acknowledgements go to Professor Coe and team for a great presentation and for putting on an interesting and thought-provoking session.

Robert Smith
Maths Teacher, Welland Park Academy

Watch the videos

on YouTube

Join the discussion

on twitter