Schools entangled in red tape, say MPs
A “deeply flawed”, over-complex method of performance assessment coupled with an endless and “bewildering” stream of new policy initiatives has left schools struggling to improve standards, according to a damning report by a committee of MPs today.
The school accountability system is so complicated that rather than helping schools do better as intended, it makes them feel “coerced and constrained” and actually creates a barrier to advancement, the members of the children, schools and families select committee found. They questioned whether Ofsted inspecting not just schools but also colleges and children’s services was sustainable, saying the watchdog risked becoming “unwieldy”.
“It is time for the government to allow schools to refocus their efforts on what matters: children,” the report said.
“For too long, schools have struggled to cope with changing priorities, constant waves of new initiatives from central government, and the stresses and distortions caused by performance tables and targets.”
The committee warned that schools secretary Ed Balls‘s white paper last year, which set out plans for schools to be issued with annual report cards, could make the situation worse. “There is a real danger that schools may become overwhelmed by the intricacies of the proposed reforms,” they said.
The MPs called on Ofsted to give more weight to the quality of teaching and learning observed by inspectors, and less to test results. Achievement and attainment tables were likely to favour independent and selective schools but most of those who used them were unaware of the tables’ “very serious defects”.
The report also warned against plans to rate schools with a single grade on the US-style report cards.
The committee’s chairman, Barry Sheerman, said the accountability framework stigmatised and undermined struggling schools. “What schools need now is a period of stability and a chance for their own efforts to improve performance to bear fruit,” he added.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said the report backed up what his organisation and many others had been telling the government. “The current accountability regime is too complex and ineffective,” he said. “It is fixated on numerical performance indicators and targets that are poorly understood and frequently misused, and it is overdue for a complete redesign.
“Many schools, and by association the pupils, have been unfairly damaged by the preoccupation with misleading league tables and with ‘naming and shaming’ those deemed not to be doing well enough.”
Philip Parkin, of education professionals union Voice, said: “Once again the committee has hit the nail on the head – recognising what is obvious and practical to school staff but which the government cannot or will not see.”
A DCSF spokesman said the schools white paper, published in June, set out a new model of accountability based on schools being given more responsibility for their own improvement.
“We are already beginning to give funds directly to individual schools, rather than through the National Strategies programme, so that schools can invest in training or other support that is most suited to them,” he said.
“The fact that we have successfully reduced the number of National Challenge schools from one in five when the programme started to one in 12 now shows that some nationally led strategies, with plans written by local experts, can really pay dividends.”
A spokesman for Ofsted said recent changes mean inspectors now spend more time in classrooms observing teachers and pupils. He added: “Of course, test and examination results are important and it would be wrong to ignore overall results. This is what parents and employers look for.”