High stakes accountability in primary education

by Guest Blogger, 28 February 2017
Guest blogger Emily responds to a recent Education Select Committee debating primary school assessment and accountability, at which our own Tim Oates gave evidence. 

Neil Carmichael MP and the Education Select Committee recently heard latest evidence as part of their ongoing review of primary assessment and accountability. 'Life without levels' has been a bumpy ride, some have argued 'chaotic'. As the experts before the committee, which included Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment, so admirably highlighted, the case for improvement cannot be disputed. Tim was joined by experts from Education Datalab, Ofsted, the National Association of Head Teachers, the National Foundation for Educational Research, Professors from Cambridge, Bristol, UCL, and Durham and teachers and heads to give evidence on the real life fall-out of changes to policy. It makes sobering viewing and the evidence is overwhelming. 

Whilst an increased emphasis on attainment in reading, writing and maths along with school improvement and higher standards for primary age children is well intended, the way in which measures have been devised, used and linked to accountability has produced some stark and very unwanted effects. Harvey Goldstein summarised: "The problem is, at the moment, that the accountability component dominates everything else and distorts the curriculum, distorts learning. It actually distorts children's behaviour, there is actually lots of evidence now about the stress that children go under. Assessment should not be doing that; it should be encouraging children to learn." 

For many schools that already focus on a broad and balanced curriculum, innovation in teaching and strong leadership and governance, the changes present fewer risks and issues. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many schools who, as the experts highlighted, are struggling to counteract the negative impact of the changes. 

Narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to test, homework pressures, strained relationships, overworked teachers, perverse performance metrics, five-year-olds made to feel that they are underachieving, teachers, heads and families stressed by increasing demands, marginalisation of SEND pupils, the evidence sighted goes on. Undoubtedly, reading, writing and maths are essential for our young people (though not the be all and end all), and an intelligent system of accountability is a must if we are to provide equal access to high quality teaching across a broad curriculum for all. But not like this. 

Much of the high level debate with policy makers is to be expected, and will inevitably rage on; no system or policy is ever perfect, least of all from its inception. At the same time, programmes of improvement and innovation for teachers, inspectors, school governance and leadership are being championed by organisations such as the National Governors' Association, Education Endowment Fund, Trust21 and specialists in assessment to name but a few, but it will inevitably take time. The Department for Education has pledged not to intervene in changes to policy, preferring instead a period of stability. It is, therefore, essential that we rally on the ground to support schools in minimising the adverse effects on our children and teachers - the very people who made it their vocation to inspire learning in the young. 

Training and continuing professional development was a recurring theme in the evidence presented, and the Select Committee last week published a separate report on the retention and recruitment of teachers. In the report, Neil Carmichael concludes that changes in accountability are exacerbating teacher shortages and that figures mask the reality of shortages in the primary sector. He calls for a concrete plan from the government to address supply and retention. This comes after Justine Greening announced a £75m leadership and teaching innovation fund focusing on some of the challenging areas and schools. The National Governors' Association is recruiting a Chairs Development Manager and Governing Bodies of maintained schools undoubtedly have a critical part to play in improving strategic leadership and supporting teachers. We must ensure that innovative programmes remain adaptive to changing and escalating needs and that those proven to be successful scale up quickly so that we can try and avert the crisis for today's young people and professionals caught up in a system that for some, is doing more harm than good. 

Emily Almeida-King 
Director, Almeida-King Associates Ltd. 

Our guest blogs do not necessarily represent the views of the Group

Before you go... Did you find this article on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook? Remember to go back and share it with your friends and colleagues!

Related blogs

Key bloggers

Tim Oates Blogger
Tim Oates

Director of Assessment and Research

Research Matters

Research Matters 32 promo image

Research Matters is our free biannual publication which allows us to share our assessment research, in a range of fields, with the wider assessment community.