To rethink assessment, we also need to rethink school accountability

We need to rethink school accountability to remove the unintended glass ceiling which can limit student achievement

Mid December saw the launch of the House of Lords (HoL) Education for 11–16 Year Olds Select Committee report, which made recommendations to rethink school performance measures. This is encouraging as state sector accountability mechanisms aimed at ensuring a quality education for all need to allow more room for a breadth of ideas and approaches.

The HoL report outlined six performance measures that input into the Department for Education’s (DfE) league tables. In addition to these there are numerous other regulatory structures within state education: DfE list of approved courses, National Curriculum, Exam Specifications, Ofsted inspections, Initial Teacher Training re-accreditation, Baker Clause etc.

The breadth of performance and regulatory structures works to shepherd schools down a certain path with regards to what is taught (e.g. exam board specifications and Progress 8) and how it is taught (e.g. Ofsted and ITT re-accreditation). 

The HoL report said that ‘there was an overwhelming consensus among the witnesses who addressed this issue that the high-stakes nature of the current accountability arrangements is having a detrimental impact on pupils, teachers and schools.’

This helps to raise the country’s educational floor, but does it leave enough space for innovation and flair? Does it enable students the richest educational experiences and widen their perception of themselves as learners?

Within Bohunt Education Trust we run immersion language courses in Mandarin, Spanish and French. Students receive one third of their tuition in a foreign language; their tutor time and various lessons, as well as their language lessons, are all in the target language. The students flourish not only in the language, but in all their subjects due to the incredible learning behaviours inculcated by the high challenge, high support environment.

However, the students’ results haven’t counted in the league tables due to technicalities around COVID, effectively penalising the institutions offering this incredible opportunity to students. Furthermore, the progression to A Level is tricky due to the additional difficulty of the specifications for non-native speakers (and of languages in general, as reported by Ofqual).

Another example of acting to do what is right, but again being penalised, is regarding project qualifications at GCSE.

Project qualifications are being lauded by a variety of sources ranging from Heads of Admissions at prestigious universities to employers as something they are wanting to see on every application. We used to teach the iGCSE in Global Perspectives, a wonderful course focused on teaching about major global issues and which rewarded project work, teamwork and individuals’ points of view, as well as the ability to regurgitate and apply knowledge in an exam setting. However, that course no longer counts in the performance tables and so, currently, no longer runs in our schools. 

However, we are intending to bring it back next year regardless of the league table risk. The need to allow students to learn deeply about current global issues, develop self-regulation and improve their ability at collaborating, presenting and thinking critically is too great.

We are also working to ensure the skills, dispositions and deeper knowledge developed through appropriate Project Based Learning is available to all, not just those studying Global Perspectives, by introducing short, interdisciplinary units on migration, climate change and biodiversity; by weaving citizenship throughout our mandatory personal development curriculum and by having a significant emphasis on the outdoors, in and out of the timetabled curriculum, throughout all of our schools.

Research on the Extended Project Qualification at A Level suggests that the introduction of a project qualification into the subjects a student is doing can improve their attainment in their other subjects, and make them more likely to go to university, and make them more likely to complete university, and make them more likely to attain higher at university. And yet EBACC and Progress 8, as well as the courses that are funded, stifle the opportunity for students to take them.

The path we are nudged down limits the broader elements we can meaningfully include within our curriculum (for example current global challenges and leadership), what students are able to show about themselves in external assessments (for example collaboration) and the way in which we teach (for example interdisciplinary learning).

Could it also be limiting students’ learner identity and so negatively impacting their enjoyment and engagement within school? Could this be part of the attendance crisis we are currently seeing?

The opportunity for real world project work, interdisciplinary learning, playing with ideas and problem solving with (rather than in front of) our teachers is curtailed by our curriculum and assessment system. This therefore limits a learner’s perception of what they are good at that is rewarded by the education system, the relationship they have with their teachers, and how often/how much their interests are shared by the school. All of these limits have subsequent impacts on enjoyment and engagement.

The answer to the above isn’t radical, and the HoL report is going in the right direction.

It is a review of accountability mechanisms to ensure there isn’t accidentally a glass ceiling put in over the top of the rising floor. To ensure space for schools to choose courses that encourage different types of learning; to ensure a breadth of ideas and approaches are recognised through multi-modal assessment; and to ensure student agency can be part of our core education. This is about breadth of curriculum, but also a greater element of choice of curriculum.

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