Accountability - how to make it work

05 October 2015

The accountability system in England needs re-engineering to make it work properly, a leading academic has said.  

In a talk held by Cambridge Assessment, Professor Rob Coe, Director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University, said that while research suggested that accountability did have a positive effect on outcomes, it had a number of "dysfunctional side effects" and unintended consequences. 

Calling for action, he said: "The chances are this is a re-engineering problem rather than a design problem... this is about tweaking something to get it to work in the most optimal way rather than sitting down with a piece of paper and saying what should accountability look like? But how do we get to a place where that looks like a feasible thing to do? We don’t tend to do policy in that way."

In a wide-ranging speech, Prof Coe reserved particular criticism for the England schools watchdog Ofsted. He called for trainee inspectors to have to pass an exam to prove their judgements were valid, and for Ofsted to carry out regular research to make sure that the standard of inspectors’ judgements was being maintained. 

"It's a mystery to me what training [Ofsted inspectors] actually do," he said. 

"It would be nice to have some reassurance that the people [at Ofsted] who are making these judgements actually are capable, that they make sound and valid judgements. Can we demonstrate in a convincing way that they do, by testing them? If they don't, if their accuracy isn't sufficient, or they are out of line with the standard, they shouldn't be allowed to practise."

He also criticised politicians' involvement in accountability, saying: "Politicians just can't leave it alone. It's too irresistible to them. They see this as a lever which is not only powerful, but it's one they can reach. We need to somehow get [politicians] away from [accountability]".

He ended by calling for experimentation to solve the accountability problem and "better, harder to distort measures". 

"We need to turn those dials in lots of different independent ways and work out what gets the best mixture coming out of the factory at the end", he said.

His talk, which was completely sold-out, was followed by a lively debate. The full video is above. You can view presentation slides from Prof Coe's lecture and related references below.

Three audience members (some physical, others virtual) have also shared their thoughts and questions arising from #CoeCam debate. You can read their views here.

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