Leaders have the power now to re-balance accountability

Awaiting top-down reform of our top-down system is a missed opportunity to take control and show the full breadth of school improvement work

Awaiting top-down reform of our top-down system is a missed opportunity to take control and show the full breadth of school improvement work

30 Mar 2024, 5:00

There seems little doubt that accountability, and the role of Ofsted in particular, will feature in general election manifestos when they arrive. Until the election, it is hard to see what national reform and change will ultimately look like.

All of this could leave trust and school leaders feeling rather powerless and frustrated. Ofsted’s ‘Big Listen’ may help mitigate that and must surely be welcomed, but Forum Strategy have been arguing for some time for a broader discussion around accountability.

We need to untap greater system leadership and professional reflection on the purpose and nature of accountability more generally, taking our thinking beyond Ofsted and inspections and staying mindful of what is within leaders’ control, and what isn’t. There are two main reasons why this matters.

First, top-down accountability will always exist and there is some freedom to be had in accepting this point. Ofsted undoubtedly needs significant reform, but change will always depend on political will and decision makers. That is the nature of a national inspectorate. The same goes for the ESFA and the DfE’s regulatory oversight.

Second, some trust and school leaders have not yet fully realised the opportunity to shape a more formative, profound accountability culture that goes beyond these national discussions – at a local level, through what we describe as ‘pure accountability’. Doing so will create a more balanced accountability culture and reflects a growing onus placed upon directors across sectors to consider the interests of wider stakeholders and the organisation’s impact on communities and the environment.

In our recent ‘In Practice Guide’ for Forum Strategy members, we defined pure accountability as: “formative accountability at a local level, that puts the end user and the communities we serve in the driving seat of holding our organisations to account; empowering those we serve and work alongside to provide feedback and insights that contribute to the strategic direction, ongoing improvement and responsiveness of our organisations over time’. 

This is challenging. Accountability already feels all-pervading

This is not an alternative to ‘top-down’ accountability from regulators and inspectorates, but a balance to it – a rich and well-informed source of intelligence and insight that can generate high-quality strategy, improvement and better partnerships over time. Ultimately, it’s a cultural nudge.

Pure accountability manifests in different forms, and some trusts are really moving forward on it. It could be a commitment to a regular cross-trust pupil survey, similar to or indeed aligned with the Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Report, which identifies pupils’ sense of life satisfaction, confidence and wellbeing.

Or it could be an annual staff satisfaction survey that identifies progress around mitigating workload and/or improving wellbeing. In each case, balancing qualitative and quantitative data and benchmarking across similar organisations as well as the wider economy can provide valuable direction for improvement activity.

Many such examples exist where trusts can benchmark themselves against key ’employer of choice’ metrics. It could be a commitment to publish carbon reduction ambitions and set interim targets across the next decade. Or the annual publication of measures such as staff absence, parental satisfaction or destination data for pupils five years after leaving the trust’s schools.

If pure accountability is to really work and generate trust and commitment, it should be formative in purpose, informing ongoing improvement work, not new forms of judgment or labels. It must, however, be board-led and sufficiently visible to end users so they can engage with it and determine progress.

Let’s be frank. This is challenging. Accountability already feels all-pervading for many. Adding more into the mix is bound to cause apprehension. But to resist it is to resign ourselves to an accountability that is only ever ‘done to’ the sector.

Instead, we can generate more formative, community-focused and locally-owned priorities and shape a different relationship with accountability. We can give stakeholders a sense of control, not least those who feel remote and disconnected from public institutions. And in the process, we can untap a treasure trove of real-time, place-based insights into the breadth of work involved in school improvement.

Simply awaiting national reform of our top-down accountability systems is to miss this potential. Boards and leaders have the power now to demonstrate what else is possible.

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