Sense and Accountability

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The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has published a report today calling for reforms to the system for judging England’s primary schools, in order to make it fairer on schools and better for children.

The report, Sense and Accountability: Holding our Primary Schools to account for what matters most, follows consultation with a panel of primary and assessment experts, including CEM Director, Professor Rob Coe and CEM’s Director of Policy, Katharine Bailey.

The panel were drawn together by ASCL in response to concerns about the intense focus placed on Key Stage 2 SATs results and the negative impact this has on schools and children.

Katharine Bailey emphasised: ‘My prime concern with the current system is that it encourages the profession to focus on how to ‘pass’ an inspection rather than how to improve pupil outcomes. An example of that is teachers are under pressure to create an overly–detailed and largely useless audit trail to demonstrate progress to Ofsted. What they should be doing is focussing on using assessments themselves, in the classroom, where it matters most.’

‘The pernicious problem’

School performance tables are based largely on a single set of tests in English and maths, taken by 11-year-olds during one week in May, at the end of seven years of schooling.

With such high-stakes use of data it is unsurprising that there are negative consequences on teaching and learning, with many teachers reporting ‘teaching to the test’, narrowing of the curriculum and increased pressure and workload as a result of statutory assessment and accountability.

In a report published in April 2017, the House of Commons Education Committee said that “Many of the negative effects of assessment are in fact caused by the use of results in the accountability system rather than the assessment system itself”, and that “the stakes should be lowered at primary school in order to combat some of these negative impacts.”


The report published today contains 15 recommendations – some are aimed at government, some at Ofsted, and some are for school leaders and leadership organisations.

The proposals include:

  • Primary school performance tables should be based on results over three years rather than on a single year’s assessment.
  • Schools should no longer be required to label children as having ‘met’ or ‘not met’ the expected standard in SATs reports sent home to parents.
  • The government should work with a broad range of stakeholders to develop clear aims for primary education and consider how the performance of schools can be judged against those aims.
  • Ofsted should ensure that inspectors do not place too much focus on SATs results and take into account the wider curriculum beyond English and maths.
  • The government should look into how to improve the Key Stage 2 writing assessment, or scrap it completely.
  • The government should rethink its policy on compulsory academisation in the absence of evidence that it helps to improve schools.

The recommendations would involve a considerable amount of change including holding schools to account for a broader range of measures, to piloting different approaches to accountability, exploring different models in order to find out what works and what doesn’t work.

Evaluating impact

The report cites Professor Rob Coe and Gabriel Heller Sahlgren’s 2014 proposal of trialling different approaches to accountability, and states that ‘If the government is serious about implementing evidence-based policy in education, it needs to commit to properly investigating the impact of the current approach to accountability, to exploring alternative models, to trialling any proposed changes and to monitoring the system on a long term basis.’

The report brings fresh hope to those who have long argued that while the focus on progress in primary schools is good, the current system needs further scrutiny.

Katharine Bailey says that she is ‘hopeful about this report because it highlights a fundamental truth; we don’t know what system of accountability is going to be effective. The report makes some recommendations based on good evidence and that’s a great start, but it also makes clear that we need to evaluate how well any new system is doing the job and be prepared to change it.’

Read more on the CEM Blog: Assessment and accountability