Accountability system stifles innovation

Tuesday, November 10th

I was at the Guardian’s Innovation in Education conference in London yesterday, and noticed several comments arguing that the current accountability regime stifles fresh thinking in schools.

One of the keynote speakers, Larry Rosenstock, the chief executive of a group of American semi-independent charter schools in San Diego, certainly appeared to be making this argument, although I think he was probably the fastest speaker I’ve ever heard at a conference, so it was hard to keep up.

But he appeared to be arguing that centralised standards-setting and regulation by, for example, high-stakes testing and regulation, could drain the life out of a school system.

He said:  “If setting standards translates as expectations and challenge for students, then I am totally for that. But what tends to get practised in schools is standardisation of what is provided, which tends to suck the oxygen of innovation out.”

The director of the Finnish National Board of Education also argued that his country’s high-trust system, which lacks an English-style inspection system, league tables and national tests, helped promote fresh thinking.

But for me perhaps most powerful were the comments I received from those on the floor of the conference. A local authority adviser told me that innovation in education was all very well, but it wouldn’t happen while schools are under such huge pressure to demonstrate immediate, short-term results. The epitome of this was the Government’s National Challenge programme, under which schools are threatened with closure or take-over if their results remain below 30 per cent achieving five A*-Cs at GCSE, including English and maths. In this environment, it must be difficult for any other thinking than desperate back-covering in the drive for better scores take precedence.

This adviser said that those well above this threshold were reluctant to change what they were doing, with an “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it” view of what they did. Those just above the line thought they better not risk doing anything differently, for fear of falling below it. Ironically, it was only those who were well below the cut-off who thought they might as well try something alternative, as they had nothing to lose.

He added that the targets culture undermined true education. He said: “The way that schools hit their targets is by narrowing the curriculum and manipulating things. That’s not education.”

An employee of a national advisory body said: “There are many significant barriers to innovation at the moment [in the form of ]accountability for short-term improvement and targets. It’s really frightening for teachers: who is prepared to put their career on the line to do something different?”

A teacher from the floor said: “The prevailing conditions are probably against innovation right now. We have got a potential change of government, so people do not know what the situation will be next year. And Ofsted is increasingly focusing on data such as contextual value added scores, and performance especially in maths and English, so I do not think the conditions are particularly favourable for innovation.”

To be fair, the view of the conference overall was more optimistic: two thirds of the 200 or so there agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “the current conditions present great opportunities for radical innovation in education”. But the influence of the accountability regime was a common theme throughout the day, and “fear” was top of the reasons why conference guests worried that innovation might be stifled.

To be clear, and this may be slightly heretic to those attending the conference, I don’t personally see innovation as a good in itself. it could be argued that experiments with learning that do not work – which are surely a likely risk for truly radical innovation – are too high a price to pay when each student only gets one chance at full-time compulsory study. Therefore, it could be argued that a truly radical free-for-all in terms of new approaches to learning is a step too far. But, as ever with this subject, it is a question of balance. The ability of a system to promote sufficient engagement from teachers to want to change practice for the better – their intrinsic motivation to do a better job – does seem to me to be something that we undermine at our peril.

As another aside,  it is interesting that it is the accountability system, not other apparently significant changes which appear to suggest more freedom to teachers such as the recently reformed and stripped down secondary curriculum, which are perceived as having more influnce on whether true innovation flourishes.

All in all, the effect on innovation of the current standards straitjacket could be another disadvantage to put on the seemingly ever-growing list.

1 Comment

  1. I think – as you yourself hint, Warwick – that the question turns on what kind of innovation the teacher has in mind. If it’s an innovation which makes kids want to learn, then it should not be prevented at any cost. For a lot of kids, education should be learning to want to learn – goals should come later, and the exam system should check in after that.

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