Accountability and trust

Wednesday, December 2nd

I woke up the other morning, sadly enough, thinking about school accountability. Maybe I need to get away…

No, seriously, I was just having a think about the repercussions of some documents I came across which had been produced by the communications team at Ofsted, and about which I wrote an article for the TES on Friday.

The piece made the point that much of the inspectorate’s effort – or at least that of its communications team – is spent defending and trying to promote Ofsted’s reputation. To judge from these papers, the inspectorate tends to view public announcements on the state of schools as an opportunity to showcase the Ofsted “brand”. It even, on one occasion, appeared to misuse evidence from a survey of teachers on how they felt about the inspection process to present a more positive picture  (for Ofsted) than the evidence would support. Simple public interest considerations – just telling the truth about schools, and being straightforward with evidence, and letting organisational reputation take care of itself  – appeared to have gone by the board.

What are the implications of this? Well, I think it has interesting repercussions for a debate (in my head, at least) about which of a variety of public sector organisations, and those within them, actually serve the public well.

Teachers are now very heavily regulated, through Ofsted and through the performance indicators/league table system of institutional accountability. Implicit in this system is that such a structure is necessary to ensure that the professionals being monitored act in the public interest. We need an inspection system of the current type, for example, would be the argument, partly to guard against schools letting their pupils down. We need statistics-based accountability to remind teachers that their job is to produce good exam results for their charges, and that they will be held to account if they fail to do so.

If you read “Instruction to Deliver”, the 2007 book by Sir Michael Barber, who set up and ran Tony Blair’s public services “Delivery Unit”, the view clearly espoused there is that the road to success is to have civil servants intensely and ceaselessly monitoring public sector “outcome” statistics, and then seeking to cajole and prod others into making those figures rise.

But the paradox, for me, is this. The system vests a lot of trust in those working for or within institutions such as Ofsted or the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and effectively says that those looking at the statistics in Whitehall are seeing the true picture. Because, the implication is, we cannot trust teachers always to act in the public interest, implicitly we trust those nearer the political centre, working in these organisations, and further away from pupil-teacher interactions in the classroom, to do so.

But the Ofsted revelations suggest that sometimes loyalty to that organisation takes precedence, as far as I can see, over loyalty to any general public interest. And, I think the same is often true for the DCSF, having observed how it operates.

For example, despite several informed official requests to do so, the DCSF has never conducted a detailed investigation into the scale and impact of teaching to the test in schools. Why? After all, there is an awful lot of evidence that it is doing harm to at least a proportion of pupils. Nevertheless, the picture is still not complete: we need to know more about, for example, the proportion of primary schools which go in for very extensive teaching to the test, and their characteristics. But, to repeat, the Government has never looked at this in any detail. Why not? The only conclusion can be that it would not be in the department’s interest to do so – it would be embarrassing and politically inconvenient- whatever the educational effects on pupils.

The DCSF has also recently rejected without consideration a major inquiry into primary education which drew on thousands of items of evidence, including extensive public consultation. Why? Again, the only conclusion to draw is that the Cambridge Review was politically inconvenient for the government. If this analysis is true, government interest again trumps the public interest.

Now consider again those public servants who are at the sharp end of the drive to improve education, the teachers .They are far from perfect, of course, and are also subject to institutional reputational pressures from their schools, which are covered extensively in my book.  But there is one thing we should remember. Teachers are actually far less removed from those whom the policy/political process should be all about helping – the pupils – than those who are regulating them. For, if ever teachers had any doubt as to what constitutes serving the public, they are reminded of it every day of their working lives, in the form of the pupils they educate. If they let those pupils down, they are likely to see the results in human form. They may also see that the published statistics, so crucial, politically, to those at the centre, often do not tell the whole story.

The great shame is that we seem to put so much trust in those regulating this regime, who are more detached from the pupils it is meant to be serving, rather than in those whose job it is to help them, on a day-to-day basis. There should never be absolute trust in teachers. But it does seem to me to be perverse that institutions which are shown to act cynically in pursuit of their own interests can have such power over those on the front line many of whose first thought, surely, will be to do what they can to help those they are meant to be educating.

I may have articulated better similar ideas to this in a recent piece on my NAHT blog, which is available here.

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