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The accountability paradox

Written by: Chris Larvin
7 min read
Chris Larvin, Curriculum Design Manager, Teach First, UK

The widely assumed goal of school accountability is to improve teaching and learning in schools, informed in large part by high-stakes assessments. In her Reith Lectures, Baroness O’Neill (2002) made the case, however, that accountability mechanisms can actually produce less trust in society, eroding confidence in the effectiveness of professionals. It is suggested that the effectiveness of classroom teachers in England has also been undermined by the unforeseen consequences of accountability in schools. The term ‘accountability paradox’ can be used to describe how the mechanisms designed to improve systems actually threaten it and discourage qualities that support reasonable behaviours. The paradox can be illustrated in the challenges facing classroom teachers in England, including the pressure to adopt pedagogical approaches, pay incentives and teacher retention.

Accountability can be considered pervasive in modern life; it is rarely defined but often linked to a judgement of the effectiveness of a particular system, such as a hospital or school (Stobart, 2008). Accountability in English schools is far from a recent concept, with calls for the justification of education spending dating to the mid-19th century (Wiliam, 2010). Today, English schools operate in a system of high accountability, with mechanisms or levers including school inspections, league tables and international large-scale testing (Brill et al., 2018). League tables are heavily informed by high-stakes summative assessments, such as SATs, GCSE and A-level examinations. These examinations serve multiple purposes at one time, including encouraging learning, certification of academic achievement, academic selection, teacher performance monitoring and school evaluation. Accountability in English schools is also associated with a higher degree of autonomy than other nations, illustrated by reforms in the past decade to reduce local and national government control over finances, school improvement and curriculum. Accountability measures in England are not static; consistent with other developed nations, England is gradually shifting from hierarchical accountability to horizontal mechanisms, with multi-academy trust networks and an emphasis on professional standards.

Whilst a teacher’s experience of school accountability will be influenced by school culture and context, many will identify with the analogy drawn by Baird and Elliot (2018) of teaching within a panopticon, in a constant state of readiness for inspection. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the apparent necessity of accountability measures to hold schools, their teachers and leaders to account, even in a global health crisis. The changes to high-stakes examinations in 2021 have illustrated their influence on learning in the classroom.

The notion that accountability can ensure that teachers adopt the most effective teaching strategies is undermined by our high-stakes examination culture, pressuring teachers to adopt assessment approaches to maximise examination results. Several bodies have raised concerns regarding whether teachers entering the profession are adequately prepared for such challenges and, as noted by Popham, ‘inadequate knowledge in assessment can cripple the quality of education’ (2009, p. 4).

There is a temptation and pressure for many teachers of examination classes to adopt instructional strategies that emphasise the transmission of knowledge to maximise outputs on assessments – so-called ‘teaching to the test’ (Popham, 1987). In addition, the transparency expected within our examination system has resulted in the availability of past items to enhance preparation, meaning that examination performances may give an inflated estimate of the learning that has taken place and creating a degree of chance as to whether pupils have practised similar items (Baird and Black, 2013). Meanwhile, accountability mechanisms in England, such as league tables, have been shown to perversely incentivise targeted teaching, off-rolling, gaming and cheating. Research by Meadows and Black (2018) revealed the examination-related pressures that teachers faced in some schools, with 60 per cent of 500 teachers surveyed witnessing coursework malpractice. However, recent reforms, including a focus on progress measures rather than attainment, have arguably had a positive influence on learning, alongside the elimination of coursework in many subjects, modular exams and resitting.

For many teachers, their pay progression is now linked to pupil outcomes in high-stakes assessments. It is based on the argument that this form of accountability can incentivise teachers and drive up standards in schools. In 2013, schools were afforded the autonomy to decide on performance measures to determine pay progression. In an age of metrics, it was unsurprising to see most schools adopt performance thresholds, such as average point scores of exam groups, rather than professional development targets. The ability of a teacher is therefore judged on their pupils’ singular performance rather than a reflection of the learning that takes place each lesson. The lack of evidence that performance-related pay improves educational outcomes (EEF, 2018) gives credence to the sceptical view that performance-related pay acts as a resource-saving strategy to reduce the cost of England’s 450,000 teachers. Additional evidence has emerged that performance-related pay perpetuates the gender pay gap in school (Allen, 2018). A further example of the paradoxical nature of accountability measures would be if other classes are neglected to concentrate resources on one examination class, which could later become part of future performance measures. Despite concerns over coarse-grained measures lacking transparency and worrying levels of data literacy in school leaders and governors, accountability measures determine teachers’ pay irrespective of the learning that takes place in the classroom.

After five years, only three out of five new teachers will remain in the classroom – a worryingly large loss of teacher potential from the classroom, with workload the oft-cited contributing factor. Is this a by-product of assessment and school-level accountability measures such as the data entry and reporting? A longitudinal study pre-dating the introduction of several radical accountability measures has shown stability in the working hours of English teachers over the past 20 years (Allen et al., 2020). However, what is not understood by the study is how teachers are spending their time. By international comparison, teachers in England are amongst the hardest working in developed nations. Analysis of the 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) found that teachers in England work an additional day a week, but that time is consumed by planning, reporting and marking (Jerrim and Sims, 2019). Therefore, an English teacher’s additional time is not dedicated to teaching and learning. There are concerns for teacher autonomy and competency – that they are instead spending their time generating data rather than individualistic and creative choices. A recent study of 1,200 current and former teachers by Perryman and Calvert (2020) found that early career teachers are leaving the classroom not necessarily due to the quantity of the workload, but due to the nature of the work, particularly associated with accountability. There is some irony in the paradox of accountability measures designed to ensure value for money potentially contributing to the loss of hundreds of millions in teacher expertise each year.

Our current approach to accountability appears to do little to close the gap in educational attainment. A Teacher Tapp (2019) survey of almost 3,000 teachers revealed that teachers with the highest quintile of free school meal provision and the lowest two of the four inspection grades were likely to produce more data than other teachers. Given the opportunity cost of data entry for school-level reporting and teacher retention risk, could this imply that accountability measures are having the greatest impact on teachers of the most disadvantaged in society? With a decade of radical reforms seeing little reduction in educational inequality in England, there are arguments that accountability measures have compromised the building of a sustainable educational system.

The recent calls for assessment reform at GCSE and A-level, amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, should pay attention to issues facing teachers in a culture of high-stakes examinations and accountability. Within the Ofsted 2017/18 Annual Report, Chief Inspector Amanda Speilman wrote, ‘where [an] accountability measure becomes the sole driver of a school, college or nursery’s work, their real purpose – to help young people learn and grow – is lost’ (Ofsted, 2018, p. 25). With regard to high-stakes examinations, accountability appears to have promoted a disconnect between the needs of the pupil and the purpose of an assessment, where performativity and foul play are incentivised, undermining the professionalism of teachers. A key issue for assessment reform is purpose and whether the practice of teachers in classrooms and assessments can inform an intelligent accountability culture that aligns with the purpose of education, with a focus on meaningful learning.


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