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How can you have accountability without prescription?

Professor Bill Boyle of Manchester University wrote on the 26th December of his wish that in 2013:

"those involved in policy decisions which affect learning opportunities and progress, and ultimately, life chances of pupils, address the issue of deregulation: deregulating teachers from delivering test-preparation focused lessons, and deregulating pupils from being passive recipients, both required to deliver acceptable prescribed outcomes for measurement purposes."

The regime of prescription and testing which has become part of the British and American educational culture, what Pasi Sahlberg, the author of Finnish Lessons, describes as GERM (Global Education Reform Movement), is widely criticised because it creates a "mug and jug" view of learning - filling students with knowledge to be regurgitated in tests which form the basis of high stakes school accountability. I'm sure Michael Gove, despite his affection for knowledge-based curricula, is fully aware of the dangers of a return to excessive rote learning and he often talks of freeing up teachers from prescription and bureaucracy, but the results of his policies will surely put teachers in even tighter straitjackets.

So how could we permit necessary accountability without high stakes testing and the gaming and prescription which ensues from it? How can we free up and trust teachers more?

Here's a thought: keep a strong focus on inspection and self-evaluation, with the stress on lesson observation and behaviour, but without the obsessive analysis and publication of data. Let inspectors evaluate progress in lessons, but put the focus on inspiration, relationships and originality. A major step forward would be a removal of 16+ examinations, which could be achieved with a broadening of the post 16 curriculum. Without measurements of GCSE performance we would at a stroke remove the target-driven culture and the constant focus on testing which stifles teacher and pupil creativity.

Since we know that high quality education derives primarily from high quality teaching, we can ensure the latter is achieved by continued internal and external evaluation. Sensible internal assessments, overseen by middle leaders and senior leadership teams, vetted by Ofsted, can ensure quality. If teaching quality is high, if teachers are given some space within a limited national curriculum (for all schools, not just maintained ones) and if evaluation and a culture of self-improvement is strong, students will achieve well. You can have accountability without constant testing.

I know this is a difficult circle to square. One could object that without a focus on data, we have no objective means to measure progress across the nation. It is a recipe for a kind of wishy-washy deregulation without accountability. But the inevitable consequence of a target-driven, exam-driven culture is what we see now: the testing regime leading and damaging teaching. A further consequence of the GERM culture is an over-emphasis on what can actually be measured, which contributes to the lack of esteem for subjects like art, music and drama.

Maybe the pendulum has reached the limit of its swing and we shall see smarter ways of raising motivation without stifling the ingenuity and imagination of teachers.


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