What next for school accountability?

6 Oct 2019, 5:00

Peer review has finally made it on to the political agenda as evidence of its benefits grows, writes Dr Kate Chhatwal, but as politicians catch up, there’s evidence its benefits could go much further than schools alone.

Conference season, with a possible snap election around the corner, has brought renewed interest in school improvement and accountability. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have committed to abolish Ofsted, with Labour also backing a national system of peer review.

Against this backdrop, the NAHT’s guide to peer review as a powerful means of lateral accountability and support couldn’t be more timely, and we stand behind their accountability commission’s goal of making robust peer review the norm. Challenge Partners was delighted to be asked to contribute to the guide and to attend its launch last month, in the company of education secretary Gavin Williamson.

However, one of the many advantages of peer review is that we don’t need permission from ministers; it is something educators can just get on and do for ourselves and our school communities. As independent evaluation of our peer review programme (and over 475 schools in our network) have found, it brings multiple benefits, for the institution being reviewed as well as for the peer leaders conducting the review.

Internationally, high-performing jurisdictions are characterised by extensive collaboration within and between schools, high levels of equity and trust-based accountability. At home, being accountable to and for each other can also drive better performance and enable us to identify and share excellence, systematically.

There is a wealth of expertise and good practice within our system, but too often it remains locked in individual departments, schools or multi-academy trusts. If all children and young people are to benefit from these riches, we need to be much better at identifying and sharing what works.

Robust professional dialogue, no matter how uncomfortable

Peer review is at the heart of our efforts to improve outcomes and reduce educational inequality through peer challenge, collaboration and CPD, providing rigorous, developmental lateral accountability, not top-down summary judgment. Since 2011, thousands of school leaders have conducted almost 2,000 expert-led, three-day peer reviews and worked together to share the excellence and address the weaknesses identified.

In a pilot last year, we tested whether a similar model could secure improvements at trust level. Emerging, independent evidence suggests it can. Our trust peer reviews seek to answer the question which should be at the heart of every school trust: that is, what is the trust doing to ensure the children it serves achieve better than they might otherwise, and is this working?

The pilot involved trusts of different size, phase, maturity and geography. The reviews revealed that no single approach to school improvement has proven more reliably effective than another: we saw strengths and challenges in both “tighter” and “looser” trusts we are keen to see and share what, (if any), trends emerge as our evidence base grows through further reviews scheduled this year, and also whether the strategies that work at one stage of a trust’s development are equally effective as it moves to the next.

As for the process itself, findings from the pilot point to its power and will be shared later this term in an evaluation conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research. The trusts that were reviewed talked about the impetus added by the observations and insights of appreciatively inquiring external pairs of eyes. The reviewers meanwhile returned to their own trusts full of energy and ideas, noting the benefits of undertaking reviews for their own CPD.

As the NAHT guide makes clear, these benefits can only be realised through rigorous peer review. Not a cosy chat, but robust professional dialogue, where reviewers are willing to have courageous conversations in the interest of young people, no matter how uncomfortable. When evidence of what works is captured and shared by a national organisation like Challenge Partners, among a wide network of schools, its impact can travel even further.

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