Rethinking School Accountability: Beyond Grades and Exams


December 11, 2023

By: Susanna Kempe and Sally Newton

There is an idea – persistent in the debate about public sector reform – that voters really want strict accountability regimes.

We hear this time after time. Whenever the teaching profession points out how Ofsted has terrible unintended consequences for both teacher retention and curriculum narrowing we are told that the public overwhelmingly depends on the insight its inspection regime delivers.

Today, we can put that idea to rest. Today, we demonstrate just how much public appetite exists for a more transparent, well-rounded and less high-stakes accountability system in schools.

Rigorous new research, which was published this morning, has found that parents and carers are overwhelmingly in favour of a report card-style Ofsted accountability model. Just 6 per cent said they don’t like the idea of doing away with the current “one-word” judgement system. They are also clear that they want a more rounded approach to how we think about what makes a good school.

The report’s authors, Public First, carried out polling and moderated focus groups of teachers and educationalists to explore the on-the-ground reality of meaningful reform to the education system. 

We feel confident that the parental demand for a change in accountability is at least in part because they understand that the current curriculum offered in schools has become at once too narrow and too rigid.

Parents do undoubtedly want schools to maintain a focus on academic outcomes, but they are also very keen to see expanded extra-curricular activities and the teaching of “life skills”, such as healthy eating and digital and financial literacy.

Some 54% would prefer for their child to go to a school prioritising extra-curricular activities and life skills, versus 37% that prefer that their child go to a school prioritising academic achievement and exams.  

At the Laidlaw Foundation, we agree. For us, this is an issue of social justice. We cannot go on in a world in which much of the wonderful diversity and character-building benefits of a rich co-curricular offer are too often limited to independent schools, state schools that serve middle-class catchments and those, like ours, that belong to one of the few Multi Academy Trusts with a philanthropic sponsor.

It is also, self-evidently, a matter of economic good sense. When the NHS is creaking at the seams and AI is accelerating exponentially; there is a clear societal benefit to educating young people to be healthy and digitally literate adults.

Parents also know – as we do – that the current way this country organises assessment simply isn’t working for too many young people. A third of children do not pass their English and Maths GCSE at age 16; for children who have received Free School Meals at some point in the last six years, this figure rises to more than half.

All of this leads us to the obvious question: how can we deliver a broader, more holistic curriculum and a much more extensive co-curriculum without taking our eye off the academic ball? As school and system leaders, we don’t need to be told the pressures that already exist in schools.

We can start by reducing and evolving the accountability burden on heads and teachers. On the face of it, Labour’s proposed report card could go some way to achieving that.

We can go on to trust them more. Trust that they know the individual needs and capabilities of their pupils. Trust that they can and will create a better curriculum for their community than a one-size-fits-all model dreamt up in Whitehall.

But in itself, that reform wouldn’t magic the time and money that would be needed to deliver a richer provision.

This is why our report also calls for the government to pilot and then adopt an extended school day – an initiative that could go hand in hand with the professionalisation and formalisation of free holiday clubs. Here is the space into which much of our broader curriculum could fall.

We must be absolutely clear about one thing: we are not falling into the trap of adding to the burden on schools and teachers by simply asking them to do more. This happens too often and it’s a trend that must stop. 

Instead, we are clear that if an extended school day is to work, it must bring with it much greater funding, the recruitment of more teachers and the involvement (in a more structured way) of civic society groups as delivery partners. Indeed, we go further – we don’t think any of these reforms should be adopted if they fail a “teacher workload test”.

But we should also not lose sight of what a prize there is to be won: unburdened schools that educate the whole child, that work with families, that provide an incredible multi-faceted function for the young people they teach, and, ultimately, happier, healthier and more engaged young adults at the end of it. 

Laidlaw Foundation